Saturday, February 22, 2014

What's With all the Hoop-lah?: Fashionable Livingston Ladies of the Mid 19th Century

One of the most ridiculed fashions of the Victorian era was the cage crinoline.  Developed in the 1850s, the hoop, as it is often referred to now, was by no means the only way to enlarge the volume of a lady's skirts.  At various times, women of fashion had experimented with horsehair padding, (the origin of the word crinoline), cork rumps, and the infamous panniers of the mid 18th century.  For a while flounced petticoats were starched and layered on top of one another, and each layer added weight, heat, and often discomfort to a woman's clothing.

In some ways, the cage crinoline managed to give women a bit of freedom from this layer cake of clothing.  Air was now allowed to circulate under the skirts, and the garment often weight much less than the alternatives.  Nevertheless it could also be inconvenient to wear because of the demand for increasing size, and storing them could be particularly awkward.  Not all women wore hoops--although they did find enough popularity with the middling and sometimes even working classes that they drew a storm of criticism.  And not all of these women wore them all the time.

Nevertheless, the large bell-shaped skirt that the cage crinoline initially created (it later shifted to a sweeping ellipses in the 1860s) has come to serve as a mascot of sorts for the mid 19th century, due in part to our fascination with it in movies like "Gone With the Wind" and basically any Charles Dickens flick. 

And so today I am taking a moment to highlight historic Livingston photos that feature women in their fashionably-full skirts.  They all date somewhere between the late 1850s and mid 1860s, and most of them have no identifying marks about them other than their New York City photography studios.  I've made some sparse comments to direct the casual onlooker, but I'm sure that lots of you will notice things that I haven't about these gowns, and I'm not going to pretend I've done an exhaustive refresher on my Civil War-era fashions.  Even so I simply believe that there can never be enough primary research out there for the the internet, and this is meant to contribute to that pool.  So enjoy!

PS.  Before you try to guess any colors from these images, be sure to check out this blog on how historic photography translated color into black and white.

Mary Livingston DePeyster--Mary Livingston DePeyster was John Henry's older sister and for a time was mistress of Clermont.  Mary seems to be proof that not every crinoline had to be a giant one.  She has rather a modest-size one on under her gown.  She also has the wide, pagoda sleeves that were popular at the time, accented with de riguer white undersleeves and white collar.  Apart from the gathering at the center front of the bodice and the bow at her neck (which appears to be fringed), her gown is quite simple. 

1862--Mary from Gussie(?).  Possibly Mrs. Parish.  This is my only photo with a precise date and features a young woman in a simple, yet beautifully-fitting gown.  At first glance, I thought that Mary was wearing a gown with a simple puffed sleeve, instead of an open pagoda sleeve.  But when I enlarged it to look at the details, I saw instead that her undersleeves are dark instead of their requisite white.  Paired with her dark collar and the noted simplicity of the dress iteself, I believe that Mary may be in mourning.

Unknown--Another well-fitting gown only this time with some really exuberant trim.  Instructions for puffing and pleating trim like this were available in ladies' magazines, but it seems just as possible that this associate of the Livingston family had the money to purchase the services of an experienced dress-maker.  Note this woman's white collar and undersleeves--in contrast to our last photo.  Interestingly, these undersleeves are not cuffed, but instead they fan out as wide as the gown's sleeves.  Also note the large oval pin she wears at her throat.

 Unkown--Looking at the profile of her skirt, it seems likely that this woman is indeed wearing a hoop, but she apparently picked one of a more moderate diameter.  She also has a pleated trim applied to her gown, though it is far simpler than the last one.  Her undersleeves are also stuffed rather tightly into a much smaller sleeve on her gown.  Her leather belt finishes off the ensemble by highlighting her small round waist.

Unkown--This woman has fantastically dramatic, wide hair, hooped earings, and matching bracelets on both wrists.  Don't miss the fact that her oversleeves are actually dark-colored lace.  You can just see it in the way her right undersleeve shows through.  This gown is another with some energetic trim--this time with the edges pinked, or cut into little peeks and scallops.  There is also a wide band of moire silk applied on the bias near the bottom.  She has a large lace shawl draped around her shoulders and a white hand kerchief draped in one hand.

Unknown--Probably my favorite photo in the little box I went through to gather these.  These two ladies just look so peasant-y and a little bit frothy.  Don't be fooled into thinking that the one on the right is wearing her corset on the outside though.  Bodices and waists like these were popular in the 1860s and highlighted a woman's smooth torso.  The ribbon trim on this one appears to match some more of the same on the cuff of her gown, and you can see that she has at least two, maybe three, rows of ruffles near the hem of her skirt.  More matching bracelets on her friend.

Unknown--Last but not least I thought this girl deserved to be included for her festively-trimmed dress.  Now only are her sleeves puffed and shirred in an unusual treatment, but the narrow, scalloped flounces on her skirt are then repeated down the front of her bodice. 

Well there you have it, a selection of some of the more interesting ladies and their clothes from the Box O' Unmarked Photos in collections storage.  The question remains: Who were all these women?  Are they friends of one of Clermont's many residents?  Family members?  For the moment their contribution to history is made through their clothing and remembered through a gesture of friendship--the sharing of a photograph. 

**For a more complete review of mid-nineteenth century dress in photographs, consider Joan Severa's books "Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900" and "My Likeness Taken: Daguerrian Portraits in America."

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