Sunday, January 20, 2013

Current Exhibit: First Ladies (and their fashions!) at the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has just expanded its First Ladies exhibit to include some more tantalizing fashions from some of the most influential ladies in our nation's history.  Just in time for this inauguration weekend, the exhibit now includes the stunning silk chiffon gown that Michelle Obama donned four years ago, complete with gorgeous organza flowers and sparkling Swarovski crystals.  There is also a fun little video on YouTube showing some of the challenges that the curators and conservators faced in preparing the gowns for display in this lovely exhibit.

Michelle Obama’s Inaugural Gown, 2009
Michelle Obama's 2009 inaugural ball gown.

In another interesting video from the Smithsonian, curator Lisa-Kathleen Graddy shows us some additional behind-the-scenes footage (from an earlier version of this exhibit, from what I can tell) and also shares some interesting stories about the history of a handful of these gowns.  Mary Todd Lincoln's 1861 silk taffeta gown with woven black stripes and purple flowers is one of my favorites, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning more details about it through this video.  Ms. Graddy explains how the gown was transformed by a family member who later inherited it.  A panel was taken from the original skirt in order to design a new day bodice, which replaced the evening gown bodice that Mrs. Lincoln had worn with it.  This is one of the gowns used as inspiration for a costume in the recent Lincoln movie; the film's costume designer used an 1861 Matthew Brady portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln wearing the original evening gown to recreate what it once looked like.

Mary Lincoln’s Silk Dress, 1861
1861 striped silk taffeta gown worn by Mary Todd Lincoln (later altered).
One of my all-time favorite gowns from the 1860s, which also belonged to Mrs. Lincoln, has been included in this exhibit in one of its past incarnations and you can see some photos in an earlier flickr set from the museum.  This unique purple velvet gown is displayed with both its evening and day bodices, both original to the gown.  All three pieces are piped with white satin.  This ensemble, believed to be made by Elizabeth Keckly, was worn during the winter social season of 1861-1862.  You can read more about this ensemble and see some closer photos on the museum's collections page here.
Mary Lincoln’s Purple Velvet Ensemble
Mary Lincoln's purple velvet ensemble (acc. no. 70138) in the First Ladies exhibit at the
Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
As a special treat, many of these gowns have been beautifully photographed and just recently added to the museum's flickr account for all of us to admire!  Here a few of my other favorites included in this new online showcase "exhibit":

Frances Cleveland’s Evening Gown
An evening gown worn by first lady Frances Cleveland during her husband's second
administration, 1893-1897.  The colors are gorgeous and there are so many nice details,
including the fur trim at the bottom!
Frances Cleveland’s Skirt and Bodices
Another beautiful addition from Mrs. Cleveland with this 1890s evening and day ensembles.
This green color is one of my favorites and so stunning!
Mamie Eisenhower’s Inaugural Gown, 1953
I love the style of this 1953 gown worn by Mamie Eisenhower for the inaugural balls that year.
This pink peau de soie gown is embroidered with more than 2,000 rhinestones!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Heavenly Holiday Fashions in Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg

Though we spent over a week in Colonial Williamsburg at Christmastime, I was able to make only the shortest of visits to my favorite site in town, the Margaret Hunter shop.  I typically like to take a peek into the shop a couple of times during a visit if I'm able, just because the items on display are constantly changing, and because both the milliners/mantua makers and the tailors are always absorbed in working on some stunning new and fascinating project.

During my visit, a couple of days after Christmas, the shop was serving a dual interpretive purpose, doubling to cater to both the gentleman and the ladies.  On one side, the tailor's apprentice caught the warmth and light of the late-afternoon winter sun as he finished up a pair of breeches.

Colonial Williamsburg

On the opposite side of the shop, a table lay spread with an in-progress quilted petticoat, a finished one on a nearby counter demonstrating the completed product in which the ladies' meticulous workmanship would soon culminate. Though the ladies had stepped away from their work for a moment, a backdrop of frosted wintery pastels hung against the wall in the form of a selection of silk and cotton gowns, jackets, and petticoats.

Colonial Williamsburg

This absolutely stunning and swoon-worthy cloak or pelisse (to use the French Galerie des Modes term for it) was part of the "Spruce Sportsman" project for the 2011 accessories exhibit and symposium, and I never tire of seeing it.  It was included in the "show and tell" pile of pretties that we got to examine and admire during the symposium's muff workshop, and that fur was deliciously soft.  I've been searching for something similar ever since and haven't managed to find anything even remotely similar yet.  The hunt continues!

Colonial Williamsburg

Also on display were a delightful variety of hats...

Colonial Williamsburg

...and caps and, of course, muffs - that oh-so-essential winter accessory!

Colonial Williamsburg
And perched in one of the corner display cupboards was the doll's millinery shop, a CW holiday tradition!  One can't help but be just a little bit jealous of how well-dressed these little ladies are!  :-)

Colonial Williamsburg

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Threaded Bliss

Ivory and Pearl Grey Silk Accessories,

cranberry wool jacket, 1770s
Colonial Williamsburg, December 2012.
Our previous Threaded Bliss post featured a red cassimere ensemble, accessorized for Christmas wear with an ivory and pearl grey silk hat and muff, and a breastknot of pearl grey ribbon and paper flowers.  Here, at last, is the promised Threaded Bliss for those accessories!

The pattern: The muff cover is taken from the pattern I made during a muff workshop at a Colonial Williamsburg conference almost two years ago; it is thus identical to the green and the black and blue muff covers.  The hat, like the purple one and the black and blue one, is covered by just fiddling and pleating by eye.

ivory and pearl grey silk covered hat, 1770s
Detail of the top of the covered hat.

Inspirations: For a brief run-down of muff history, changes in muff shapes, and trends in fashionable trim designs and materials, see these earlier posts about the green workshop muff.  Here are a couple of additional images that served as inspirations for this particular design.

As with the green workshop muff and the black and blue cover from last December, this new muff cover began with a row of trim edging each side of the muff.  This simple yet very pretty silk example from Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design (via DigitaltMuseum), is dated 1780-1810.

muff and cloak digitaltmuseum
Cloak and muff, 1780-1810 (Nasjonalmuseet for kunst,
arkitektur og design acc. no.  OK-12056).

This embroidered silk satin muff (acc. no. 43.1824) in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is similarly dated to about 1785-1800 and features the same row of trim edging either side of the muff, this time with a design centered in between.

muff 1785-1800 MFA 43.1824
Embroidered muff in silk satin, English, 1785-1800 (MFA acc. no. 43.1824).

Both muffs reflect the more rectangular shape popular through the 1770s.  By the early 1780s, muff shapes began to trend towards squarer, more boxy designs, and fur gradually replaced silk as the dominant, most fashionable material.  While fur muffs and silk or velvet muffs trimmed in fur are certainly seen in images prior to the 1770s, prints from the 1780s and 1790s are very heavy on all-fur muffs, with silk examples being increasingly rare.  The overall size of muffs also increased (sometimes quite dramatically, much to the delight of satirists in prints!) in the final two decades of the eighteenth century.  Because my reenacting is almost exclusively concentrated during the Revolutionary War and the years just prior to it, my muff and its covers reflect the earlier fashion for rectangular muffs of silk, like these extant pieces.

Construction details: As I mentioned above, the base of the muff cover is copied from my workshop muff cover and thus replicates its construction.  The trim is simple ruched strips of self-fabric down the sides and in curves down the center, inspired by the S-curve trim designs popular on stomachers and gowns during the late 1760s and 1770s (see Ashley's blue/yellow gown for one example).  Three bows of pearl grey silk satin ribbon accent the curves of the center trim.

ivory and pearl grey silk muff, 1770s
Muff cover of ivory silk taffeta, trimmed with self-fabric ruching
and pearl grey silk satin bows.

The brim of the hat - both on top and underneath - is covered in the same way as Ashley's purple/brown changeable silk hat, featured in that earlier tutorial.  The crown is gathered and finished at the top with a covered wooden button.  Ruched self-fabric trim finishes the edges of the brim and the crown is surrounded by a collection of grey satin bows.

ivory and pearl grey silk covered hat, 1770s

Detail of the crown, with the center covered button and lots of bows.


The fabric: The hat blank is made of straw with the low crown fashionable through the second half of the eighteenth century.  The ivory silk taffeta is the same medium weight silk I used for the alternate petticoat to pair with my blue chintz jacket.  I had just enough left over bits to line the hood of a cloak, cover and trim the hat, and make the muff and its trimmings.  The pearl grey silk satin ribbon that forms the bows, the hat ties, and the breastknot is from Burnley and Trowbridge.

Finishing the look: You've already seen the finished look with these accessories paired with an outfit, so there isn't much left to say here!  :-)

cranberry wool jacket, 1770s

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Gingerbread Houses 2012

Our gingerbread house-making tradition with family friends continued this year, though we were forced, for the very first time in 19 years, to forge ahead with one of the group missing.  With Ashley now living far enough away that a day-trip home is no longer possible, we were one house-maker down, so we decided to invite all of the parents to join us for a change.  The dads (surprise, surprise!) declined, but the mothers agreed, so we ended up with five houses this year between the two families!

gingerbread houses 2012
Our mini ginger-village!

Last year, we reported that 2012 would be the 20th anniversary of our house-making tradition, but after a year-long diligent search for pictures and other "archival evidence" on the part of both friend T and myself, we've come to the conclusion that we probably started our tradition a year later than we initially assumed.  That means that this year was officially our 19th (despite last year's report to the contrary), and that next year we'll be celebrating the "big" 20th.  So all of those ideas that we were brainstorming last year are still on the table for next year's round of houses!

My inspiration this year came from candy canes, though it still has a pseudo-Victorian flair.  As usual, I started by "painting" my walls with frosting, but instead of doing the standard solid color, I did a marbled look with red and white.  I wasn't quite sure if the experiment would be successful, but in the end, it worked pretty well and I was generally pleased. 

gingerbread houses 2012
Waiting for the "paint" to dry: my walls are on the left, with J's on the right.

The pillars of the front porch literalize the candy cane theme, which is carried into the tiled roof.  Green wreaths, garlands, and little sprigs of holly add a splash of green to the mix, making for the most Christmassy house I think I've ever created!

gingerbread houses 2012
My "candy cane" house...

gingerbread houses 2012
...with the front porch decorated for Christmas!

gingerbread houses 2012
Roof detail.

gingerbread houses 2012

Friend T's house came out lovely, created to echo a traditional New England farmhouse, complete with stone chimney, long back porch, and a mini grove of trees. 

gingerbread houses 2012
T's "New England farmhouse" house.

gingerbread houses 2012
T's house from above.

Her brother J's house, as expected, was yet another engineering marvel.  After last year's windmill, we wondered what new tricks he could possibly have up his sleeve, but he certainly didn't disappoint; his lighthouse actually does light up, cleverly concealing its electric components within walls of gingerbread, pretzels, and frosting.  Pretty impressive, isn't it?  It goes without saying that the bar for next year's creations has now been considerably raised by the introduction of this new potential!

gingerbread houses 2012
J's lighthouse guessed it...a light!

And just in case you're wondering, T and J's mum crafted a log cabin house, decorated with Christmas lights and surrounded by a neat little pretzel fence.  My mum ended up with the most traditional house, covered in gumdrops and lots and lots of frosting.  When we arranged them all on the table for a finale photo (see above), we were quite chuffed with how cute they all looked together, clustered in their little ginger village.

gingerbread houses 2012
The gingerbread-and-pretzel log cabin crafted by T and J's mum.
Additional pictures can be found in the flickr set.  Stay tuned for next year's anniversary edition of the Gingerbread House Tradition!