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Blog Posts by Subject: Fashion

Fashion Across the Atlantic

Americans still kept a close eye on fashion in Europe. Fashion periodicals found their way to those who could afford them, or appeared in circulating libraries. Later, Godey’s Ladies Book would offer homegrown interpretations of the latest fashions. Waistcoats for men changed in cut according to what was seen in newspapers from abroad. The stovepipe hat began its popular run. In fact, the 1840s mark a turning point in the fortunes of men’s jackets.

At the same time, America’s more egalitarian society meant 

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A Woman's Rights

Perhaps the truly telling factor in women's lives in the 1830s was how little civil rights they possessed. The women of the later Enlightenment years were more brazen in their demands for personal and legal freedoms. Even the French Revolution had done nothing real for women's liberty. Someone like the late Mary Wollstonecraft would be derided in this century' all her thoughtful writings now criticized in terms of her dubious morality.

Her daughter, the future Mary 

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Feminine Display

Fashions of the Napoleonic era for women had been dashing. However, larger social forces were at work that now placed a disapproving stamp on this look. While the daintily-shod foot could still peep out from under voluminous skirts, necklines rose and the feminine figure was concealed beneath jaunty collars, puffed sleeves, and other additions.

Another indicator can be seen in the hats - frothy and a harbinger of mroe to come during this century. Rackety King George IV was long dead, and his old sea dog brother would sit 

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Clothes Make the Man

The 1830s were a time when men’s clothing was affected by the tug and pull of Brummell’s austere dandy elegance and the more ornate flair of D’Orsay’s early dandyism. Men in general didn’t think of themselves as dandies, but the philosophy of men’s dress was heading for an identity crisis. Tailors still reigned supreme at this time, but fashion cycles made for conflicting modes of wear. Men were more and more inclined to move away from the frills and furbelows of earlier phases of 

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Manly Proportions

I want to offer one last example of the state of men’s tailoring in the 1830s. We can see in these two illustrations the effects of military tailoring on civilian jackets and trousers. In both cases, a nipped-in waist is regarded as necessary. The models are quite robust in proportions, excepting this convention—something we’d more readily expect in feminine dress. Clearly, well-fashioned men from this time were expected to display the kind of body type utilized in these illustrations. The reaction I feel is one of tyranny. How many longed to emulate this look but 

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Oh, That Easter Bunny!

Historical postcards are among the many images that the Library’s Digital Gallery collects. And I’ve found a gold mine of Easter Bunny cards. How easily does this secular holiday figure fit into our pop culture – you can see just by the types of scenes depicted on these cards. Fertility is one obvious clue to the pagan origins of the Easter Bunny, since rabbits generally have large litters. But why are these furry mammals hauling around chicken eggs? Another fertility symbol, a harbinger of new 

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Masculine Contrasts

The new era of Victorianism affected masculine dress as well. Whether in Europe or America, men found themselves more mistrustful of dandyism. This isn’t to say that dandies didn’t continue to emerge from time to time, often in artistic circles, but the general air was one of cynicism. The illustrations I’ve used for this post are indicative of what two American men from different cultures would wear in the 1830s. An even greater impulse for change would affect men’s clothing. Scholars still argue today over the 

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Yards of Fabric

How did women fare in the 1830s? European society was growing more conservative, and the lusty days of the Regency were now looked back on with a shudder. Popular culture might admire the dash of a Count d’Orsay, but, for women, only courtesans and actresses were permitted the same license.

As one consequence, a trend was building for a greater envelopment of the feminine form in fabric. A new age was coming—one with powerful consequences for the future.

It began on the morning of June 20, 1837, when an 

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A Popular Idol

In France, a new dandy supplanted previous notions of this masculine mode. Count Alfred d’Orsay was a sensation in London and Paris of the 1820s and 30s. His great physical beauty, dandified dress, and elegant manners had men and women stopping in the streets to stare after him. His private life—he came from an impoverished branch of French aristocracy—proved scandalous when he was “adopted” by a wealthy English Earl and his wife, and no one was exactly sure whose boyfriend he was.


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Yankee Doodle Dandies

Dandies were viewed with a little more skepticism across the Atlantic. The upheaval in Europe created by Napoleon’s rise and fall brought a steady stream of tailors and would-be dandies to America’s east coast cities. Yet in keeping with a country with more than its fair share of rough edges, the niceties of modish dress were something to regard with suspicion. Nor did it help that the largest showing of dandies regularly turned up in the U.S. Congress. The ambivalent attitude of men in the New World toward Old World 

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Who's A Dandy?

 Men’s clothing would never be what it is today without George “Beau” Brummell (1778-1840). This ingenious man, the father of the modern dandy, was initially a court favorite who fell from grace. He was a walking advertisement for the modish man. Although he took only one dip into literature, his reformation of masculine style was transformative.  One of the things I find most interesting, however, is how few portraits exist of him. The one or two of those that have come down to us are actually suspect 

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Picturesque Poverty

“A working class hero is something to be…” -John Lennon Working Class Hero (1970) A change came in the dawning nineteenth century of great significance. The trickle down of fashion grew to encompass the lives of those of the lower orders (as they were called then). A sociological interest in the dress and habits of those people in “reduced circumstances” developed, and left its mark on costume books of the period. While, previously, these books—produced for a well-heeled, erudite audience—concentrated their focus 

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War and Peace: Elegance in Dress

“Show me the clothes of a country and I can write its history.”

— Anatole France (1844 – 1924)

 The start of the nineteenth century has many echoes. Sometimes I can shut my eyes and see them, all the elegant men and women twirling round ballrooms to the lilt of the newly popular waltz. I belong to a generation of young women who grew up on the Regency stories of Georgette Heyer. One encounters in her literature (written mainly in the 1950s) nostalgia for a time “when men 

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The Empire Style

The New York Public Library held an exhibition in 2004 that illuminated the Library’s rich holdings of the Napoleonic Era; entitled “Decoration In the Age of Napoleon: Empire Elegance Versus Regency Refinement,” it showed the cultural rivalry between the two nations, including the area of fashion. An online bibliography to the Empire and Regency styles is available on the Library’s website. In fact, the French had held the fashion edge since the time of Louis XIV. The English might have a great 

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Islands of New York City: Hoffman and Swinburne Islands

 The watery barriers of islands often prevent the infiltration of outside influences, as seen in the history of Broad Channel. For Hoffman and Swinburne Islands, however, these barriers were intended to keep potentially harmful change from spreading outward. Ellis Island is rightly considered the gateway to New York City during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While this is the case, some immigrants took a detour through Hoffman Island or Swinburne Island. The two man-made islands, designated as quarantines for arriving immigrants, were created in the 1870’s in an area 

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The Divine Josephine

When giving lectures for the “Decoration in the Age of Napoleon” exhibition, I often referred to Josephine Bonaparte as the Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy of her age. The comparison is apt, for Josephine epitomized the elegance of her times. She was a graceful dresser, diplomat, and a superb decorator, whose contributions to the Empire Style have been only lately fully acknowledged. An enchanting fictional account of her life was written by Sandra Gulland, 

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The Imperial Eagle

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, one man’s name was on everyone’s lips. Napoleon Bonaparte had seized power in France with a coup, transforming himself into a living juggernaut. At first, he paid lip service to the Revolution, but there were many who were rightly suspicious of his motives. His time was the Romantic Era, when the cult of the individual first developed. This was the precursor to our contemporary world’s cult of the celebrity. 

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A Strategic Pause

All good writers of novels or lively nonfiction know that it’s crucial to pause their story at a certain point. Perhaps this can apply to the blogger, too. What have we learned so far in examining the path of Western fashion from antiquity to the nineteenth century? We know that clothing was modified for important class distinctions, that masculine bodies were celebrated while feminine bodies had to be concealed beneath numerous draperies, and men were given greater leeway with fashion. We’ve seen that rulers and their nobles protected the use of fine fashions as their 

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Closer to Modernity: The Nineteenth Century

 “Fashion is an odd jumble of contradictions, of sympathies and antipathies.” ----William Hazlitt (1778 – 1830)

The nineteenth century is when everything changes. Fashions accelerate along with the social, political, intellectual, and technological advances of each decade. Issues related to taste and aesthetics become more apparent. This is the century when men’s clothes change to take on the appearance we know today. The tailored man’s suit became 

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