This post discusses some of the fashion accessories in Bartow-Pell’s fall exhibition, The “Quiet Circle”: Women and Girls in 19th-Century America, on view until November 19.
Sometimes part of the fun of going to museums is seeing objects that are ordinarily tucked away in storage. For a couple more weeks, visitors to our fall exhibition can take a peek at some 19th-century fashion accessories from the museum’s collection. In this post, we will take a look at a few of those things: a corset busk, a pair of gloves, a shawl, and some shoes.
Corset busks were long, thin pieces of wood, ivory, bone, or steel with rounded ends that were slipped into a center pocket running down the front of the corset to provide more rigid support to the upper torso. In the 1840s, for example, a two- to three-inch-wide wooden busk was inserted in an elongated narrow corset and worn under the stiff, flattened bodices that were so popular during this decade. In the second half of the 19th century, better-engineered corsets with steel-supported front openings eliminated the need for separate busks.
Gloves were worn in public by 19th-century ladies. Various occasions required different styles, but basic leather gloves were suitable for everyday wear. In 1855, The Illustrated Manners Book advised: “Choose good, well made gloves. . . . They are worn in the street, at church, at the theater, concerts, balls, and at all large and formal evening parties. . . . In small and informal companies, gloves may be dispensed with.” In 1880, 663,813 dozen pairs of gloves (which would have included ones for women, men, and children) were imported to this country, mostly from France, Germany, and England. Like other accessories, gloves changed with the times. Peterson’s Magazine described what ladies were wearing in April 1882: “Tan-colored gloves are universally worn, some preferring the light shades, others the dark ones; but no one now thinks of matching the gloves with the dress, as tan assimilates, according to present fashion, with black, white, and colored dresses.”
Another must-have accessory for decades was the paisley shawl. These luxury items were first made in Kashmir, but Europeans developed a more affordable version. The Scottish town of Paisley—a pioneering production center of imitation Kashmir shawls—lent its name to the fashion. Other manufacturers were located in France and England. In 1860, Godey’s Lady’s Book described consumers’ appetite for these stylish goods and warned that some “India shawls” sold in American shops were actually made in France:
The passion for India shawls still continues, and, in fact, is greater than ever. The daily prints advertise them in all manner of attractiveness, and one scarcely meets an acquaintance without an India scarf spread over her shoulders. Not that they all come honestly by their name; not at all. A very large part sold under the far-famed title have never travelled farther than France, and the odor of sandal-wood . . . is contracted in the sandal-lined chest of the American shop in which it was purchased.
Godey’s breathlessly goes on to describe the prices of real Kashmir shawls in Paris or London as “almost fabulous, a long shawl costing from $1000 to $5000.” But “the French manufacturers and the American importers” provided shawls at “prices ranging from one to five hundred dollars—quite a difference.” This was still a lot of money in 1860, but somehow many women found the means to own one of these beautiful textiles.
Shawls changed over time to accommodate evolving silhouettes. Stole-like wraps complemented the simple high-waisted classical gowns of the early republic, but larger shawls were required for the huge crinolines of the middle of the century, when rectangular styles grew to the enormous proportions of about five feet wide by ten or eleven feet long. After 1870, these voluminous paisley shawls went out of fashion because they did not drape well over bustles.
Now let’s turn to shoes. Side-laced gaiter boots were made of wool or silk with leather foxing (pieces of leather on the heels and toes). Boots without heels were worn from about 1830 to 1855. Godey’s encouraged American women in 1843 to do as the French did: “You never see ladies in Paris walking in thin slippers . . . they wear abroad gaiter boots, either thick or thin, according to the season. I think a handsome foot and ankle never appear better than in such boots.” For prudish readers, the author added a moralistic note: “And surely there is a propriety when walking out, and exposed to dust or mud, that the feet should be well protected; and propriety is the fundamental law of good taste.”
Dainty oval- or square-toed slippers were another wardrobe staple, and these flat shoes with thin leather soles were popular from the early to the mid-19th century. They were made with leather uppers for daytime wear and white satin for dressy occasions. These pretty slippers could be customized with bows, rosettes, and ribbon ankle ties. Household doyenne Eliza Leslie advised cleaning the shoes with “a piece of new white flannel dipped in spirits of wine. If slightly soiled, you may clean them by rubbing with stale bread.” She also instructed readers to keep their satin shoes in “blue paper closely wrapped, with coarse brown paper outside” in a covered box. The slippers in BPMM’s exhibition—like many shoes in the first half of the 19th century—are “straights” and could be worn on either the right or left foot.
Fashion accessories can be fascinating examples of material culture, and a peek in the wardrobe raises a few questions. What can these objects tell us about life in 19th-century America? And what can they teach us about society’s expectations for women at that time?
Margaret Highland, Exhibition Curator