'How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare that after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.' No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement. — from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1775-1817)
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April 21, 2011

A generation and an ocean away...



In assembly rooms throughout the principal towns of the Atlantic seaboard states, dignified dowagers curtsied resolutely in their court dresses of stiff buckram and brocade, feeling 'scandalized in the exhibition of low-cut dresses and stiff draperies' displayed by the young ingenues of Marianne's coterie. As the older generation turned their backs, rampant Gallomania seized the younger generation, defiantly adopting the daring new style of dress, or to be more accurate, undress. In women's fashions, it was the era of the 'merveilleuse,'who wore a narrow dress characterized by a light fabric artfully draped for decency. This originated from a British undergarment, the chemise, adapted by French couturiers who bared the arms, lowered the neckline, raised the waist and shortened the skirt. It was made fashionable by Madame Fortunee Hamelin, who caused a sensation walking through the Tuileries gardens in Paris wearing only 'a sizeable gauze veil.'
     In America the merveilleuse soon became the fashion, but it was adapted to be less revealing and indecent for young women. Thus, Marianne would were flesh-colored pantaloons and a matching underskirt, raise the neckline to cover her chest, and drape a flimsy scarf or shawl over the top of her chemise. Despite belonging to Federalist families, when Marianne and her girlfriends appeared in society for the first time in 1804, they replaced the traditional court dress of elaborate hoops, ruffles, and powdered wigs with the new French fashions:  the simple clinging high-waisted gowns and unpowdered curls popular in fashionable republican circles. In doing so, they were deemed to be making not just a stylistic statement but also a political one.
-- from Sisters of Fortune: America's Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad,
by Jehanne Wake


{These dresses, from the Costume Institute collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are a little later, c. 1810, and probably a little more decorous, but aren't they beautiful?  (Not to mention Jane-Austeny.) These notes on the two dresses connect them even more to what I'm reading:
On December 24, 1803, Jérôme Bonaparte (1784–1860), brother of Napoleon, wed Elizabeth Patterson (1785–1879) of Baltimore. The beautiful and fashionable young American was married in a dress of muslin and lace that, according to a contemporary, 'would fit easily into a gentleman's pocket.' This description evokes the sheer, narrow dresses that caused a sensation at the beginning of the nineteenth century, more because of their contrast with the elaborate hooped costumes of previous decades than for any real immodesty.
Betsy Patterson was a friend, and later a sister-in-law, of one of the Caton sisters, and is described in Sisters of Fortune as being a little wild and probably a bad influence.

Whenever I read biography or social history, I always hope there will be lots of pictures tucked in the center of the book. Tooling around on the Internet is a nice extension of that!}
 
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1 comment:

Bellezza said...

I'm so anxious for the wedding! I remember Diana's and Charles' so very clearly; my mother, her friends and I all dressed up for it, and we woke up at the crack of dawn to witness as much as we could. I don't know if I can muster up the same amount of joy 30years later, but it still seems awfully exciting. I'm glad I'm not the nervous bride!

Thank you for visiting!

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