Category Archives: Museums

Dolley Madison’s Red Velvet Dress

This past week my husband and I traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina, for a bit of vintage shopping and to visit the Greensboro Historical Museum.  I’ll write more about the museum later because today I want to focus on one particular exhibit – that showing some personal items of First Lady Dolley Madison.  For those of you not in the USA, Dolley was the wife of our fourth president, James Madison.  She was a very popular figure during her time in the White House, and North Carolinians are proud to claim her as a native daughter.

Dolley was born in Guilford County, near Greensboro in 1768, though her family moved to Virginia when she was a child. In 1794 she married politician James Madison who became president in 1809.  During his presidency the US and Britain went to war in the War of 1812.  Things went badly for the United States, and in 1814 the British captured Washington, DC, and burned much of the city including Dolley’s home, the White House.

In August of 1814, President Madison had left Washington, leaving Dolley in the city with orders to leave if the British got close.  When it became apparent that the city was going to fall into enemy hands, Dolley had the staff tear down the red velvet draperies, newly made from silk velvet from France.  The presidential china and silver were wrapped in the velvet to cushion them, and then a portrait of President Washington was removed and sent to New York for safekeeping.  Dolley sent the wagon containing the silver and china on to safety, and then she fled the city.  Hours later the White House burned.

Eventually the United States did win the war, and Dolley was hailed as a national heroine.  Unfortunately she was left in poverty after her husband died in 1836.  She was forced to sell the Madison plantation, Montpelier, and later, her husband’s papers, in order to survive.  She died in Washington in 1849, leaving her possessions to her son and to her niece and companion,  Anna Payne.

Several years later Dolley’s son held an auction of many of her personal items.  Anna Payne bought as many of the items as she could, which then were passed down through her family.  The last of the line was her granddaughter-in-law, who died in 1956.  After her death, a trunk containing the Dolley Madison items were found in her attic of her house in Pennsylvania.  A group of women from Greensboro who called themselves the Dolley Madison Memorial Association traveled to the auction of the granddaughter-in-law’s estate and purchased the trunk.  It and the contents were donated to the Greensboro Historical Museum in 1963.

In the trunk was a red velvet dress that dates to the 1810s.  Instead of being made of thin dressmaking velvet, the fabric is a heavy-weight fabric of the type used for draperies.  I’m sure you have figured out by now that many historians and museum workers have speculated that the dress was made from the curtains that were saved that day in August, 1814.  And it makes sense, as surely many of Dolley’s dresses were destroyed in the fire.

The problem has been in trying to prove the theory.  The DAR thought they had a scrap of the fabric from the draperies, but examination under a high-powered microscope proved that the scrap was not very worn velvet, as they had assumed, but was a satin weave.  That eliminated the possibility of comparing the two fabrics as the DAR piece could not have come from the draperies.

There is quite a bit of documentation concerning the fabric of the draperies.  We know it was red velvet from France.  We know it was saved from the fire.  We also know that Dolley held onto the dress throughout her life.  But we do not know if the dress was indeed made from the famous fabric.

The original dress. Photo copyright Smithsonian Institution

Today, the Greensboro Historical Museum no longer displays the original dress as it is much too fragile.  A reproduction was made in 1988, and the original was put into storage.  It was loaned to the Smithsonian for a special show, and when it was returned to Greensboro, it was put on display for several months.  It now rests in its specially made storage box, away from view.

Some of the original items are on view, including a pair of white satin slippers, a card case, and two glass perfume bottles.

There is a fantastic video that was made for C-SPAN, narrated by the curator at the museum, Susan Joyce Webster.  It really is so great, and has Webster showing the original dress and pointing out the details.  It’s seventeen minutes well-spent.

This dress is also a reproduction.  It came to the museum through a great niece in 1950 and was not part of the Madison treasure trunk that was found in the attic.

If you watch the video you will see just how close this treasure came to being lost.  Considering all the twists and turns of the story, it is really quite amazing that the items were found and saved.

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Exhibition Journal: Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes

While not technically not a fashion exhibition, this show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 2013 is one of my all-time favorites.  I’ve said before that it you want to really understand the fashions of the Teens and Twenties, you have to look at the work that was done by the costumers and set designers of the Ballets Russes.  Scheherazade,first performed by the Ballets Russes in 1910 that set off a fad for Orientalism in fashion that lasted into the 1920s.  Even the great couturier Paul Poiret was influenced by the movement, even though he downplayed it in his autobiography.

So much of the beauty of the Ballet Russes costumes is in the attention to detail.  In my journal I made a border of the ones I found to be the most interesting, and in the center, on a piece of translucent paper, I drew Sonia Delaunay’s magnificent costume for the 1918 production of Cleopatra.

 

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Exhibition Journal – Yves Saint Laurent + Halston

Back in February I was lucky to see this exhibition at FIT, Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the ’70s.  I usually like to take my exhibition journal and do drawings on site, but in some cases that is just not possible.  For this trip I didn’t even take the journal with me, as baggage was tight.  Also, I knew that I could depend on FIT to provide excellent brochures about each exhibition.

I was glad that I had decided not to try and sketch.  I had two friends with me, and sketching takes time.  And there is so much to do in New York and we had so much to see.  But the big reason I decided not to try sketching on site was because the Museum at FIT is always very busy.  People are constantly moving around the exhibits and it is hard for me to concentrate with so much activity.  One gallery has seats which are nice for drawers, but others do not, and I can’t draw standing.

So instead I took lots of photos of the details, planning to do my sketches later.  That didn’t happen though, as I just had so much going on in my head with all the other excitement from the trip.  So I decided to rely on the materials provided by FIT.  Because of that, this journal entry focuses more on what the curators wanted me to take from the exhibition rather than my own observations.  That’s not ideal, but sometimes it just has to be that way.

Probably the biggest takeaway from this exhibition is how time gives a clearer vision as to the zeitgeist of an era.   In the 1970s I don’t think many people would have been able to look at the work of Saint Laurent and of Halston and see how they were both pulling from similar influences.  At the time the differences overshadowed the similarities.

But using that marvelous tool called hindsight, we can step out of the era to see where both designers were influenced by the same things.  It was their approach that was different.

I’ve heard the 1970s referred to as “the decade that taste forgot.”  I think this exhibition can put that line to rest.

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Exhibition Journal: Shanghai Glamour

Click to enlarge

 

These journal pages are from a visit I made to the Museum of Chinese in America two years ago.  In contrast to the exhibition at the Met’s Costume Institute that is currently running, China: Through the Looking Glass which examines Chinese influences on Western fashion, Shanghai Glamour showed how Chinese women adapted aspects of Western dress to create a new style of dress in the early twentieth century.

After the end of the Opium War in 1842, the British victors were able to dictate the creation of “trade cities” in China.  These cities were made to tolerate a Western presence and were forced to allow trade with them.  Shanghai was one of the trade cities.  By the twentieth century there were large British, American, and French populations in the city.  It was an increasingly cosmopolitan place.

The exhibition showed how the women of Shanghai created their own distinctive style of dress, which was based on Chinese traditional dress but incorporated elements of the West.  The look was feminine, but modern.

Click to Enlarge

 

There is a lot of discussion about how Western fashion appropriates different cultures, so it was interesting to see how cultural influences flowed the other way. Sometimes we forget that culture often works on an exchange system.

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Exhibition Journal: Fashioning the New Woman, 1890 – 1925

Fashioning the New Woman was an exhibition at the DAR Museum in Washington, DC, held the summer of 2013.  From my journal you can see that the items that were of the greatest interest to me were sportswear.  Some of the items, like the gym suit and swimsuit, were fairly common, but others, like the circa 1895 sweater are very rare, even in collections.

Sketching on site is often difficult due to crowds and lack of seating, but the conditions at the DAR were ideal.  Not only was the crowd light, chairs were provided for people who wanted to sketch or to read the booklets that accompanied the exhibition.

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Halston & Warhol: Silver & Suede, at the Mint Museum

Halston is having a bit of a moment in the fashion exhibition world.  I wrote earlier about Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the ’70 at the Museum at FIT, and I’ve been looking forward to this show ever since seeing it.  The exhibition was organized by the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh where it was first shown, and over the past year it has traveled to several other cities.  It is currently in Charlotte, NC, at the Mint Uptown, where you can see it until June 14.

The exhibition came about due to the efforts of Halston’s niece, Lesley Frowick.  She approached the Andy Warhol Museum with her idea, and they enthusiastically agreed to co-curate the exhibition with her.  Halston had left much of his archive to Leslie in case she ever wanted to write a book about him, a task she has accomplished.  They were able to pull from her material and that of the museum to find objects to illustrate the relationship the two men shared, and how one’s art influenced that of the other.

I’ve been to the Mint numerous times, but simply put, this is the best exhibition I’ve ever seen there.  The variety of artifacts and the way it was all arranged led to a great learning experience.

The exhibition started with accessories, and how Warhol got his start illustrating shoes and Halston got his making hats.  Interspersed with the drawings, hats, and archival material were Warhol films and Halston fashion show videos.

Courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum

 

Probably the one object that best shows the mutual influence is this silk jersey Halston dress.  The print was based on a series of flowers that Warhol had been silk-screening.  The exhibition had not only the dress, which belongs to the Warhol Museum, but also an assortment of the paintings which were hung nearby.

Collection of Lesley Frowick, courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum

 

The Halston clothing came from several sources.  Some of it came from Lesley Frowick’s collection, and those of other family members.  Much of it came from Halston Heritage, the company that owns the Halston label, and which has an archive of Halston clothing.  The evening set above was created in 1983.

In many cases the original Halston sketch, drawn on lined notebook paper would be hung near the actual garment.  Some of the garments were shown with publicity sketches drawn by artist Stephen Sprouse.  And all through the exhibition snippets from Warhol’s famous diary gave meaning to the art and added perspective to the clothing.

Collection of Lesley Frowick, courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum

 

I really appreciated the fact that the clothes were accessorized in the most proper way, with Elsa Peretti for Tiffany jewelry.  The blue cashmere pants, sweater, and cape have just the silver and leather Peretti belt to set off the outfit.

Halston for JC Penney Suit, 1983 Collection of Lesley Frowick, courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum

 

Much has been made of how the Halston deal with JC Penney’s caused his downfall.  It’s such a shame really.  Some of the JC Penney clothes were on display, and I was surprised at how good they really were.

©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum

 

There were a few Warhol paintings of the mutual friends of the two men.  There was Liza Minnelli, of course, but also Martha Graham.

To kick off the exhibition, Lesley Frowick was in Charlotte to gave a talk and show slides of Halston as a child.  I was lucky enough to attend, as listening to Halston’s niece really put a human face on the designer.  He was not just the famous Halston, he was Uncle Halston, and according to Leslie, he was a really good uncle to have.

As a young woman Leslie moved to New York and her uncle gave her a job and a place to live.  When she had a trip to Paris planned and did not know what to wear, Halston told her to simply send over her luggage and he would handle the rest.  He filled five suitcases with clothes for her, along with sketches showing what to wear with what.

For the talk, Lesley was wearing pieces of her vintage Halston collection, and she looked terrific.

I’ve not been able to find out if this exhibition will continue to travel, so if you are anywhere near Charlotte in the next three months, I strongly recommend this show.  Photos were not permitted due to ownership rights, but the Mint does allow use of photos from their website.

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Exhibition Journal – Katherine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen

This exhibition was at the Kent State University Museum in 2010 ans 2011 after receiving a gift of Katherine Hepburn’s clothing from her estate.  Since then the exhibition has traveled, and it is currently showing at the Durham Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.

In 2007 the Kent State Museum contacted the estate of Katherine Hepburn as they were interested in acquiring her collection of her performance clothes.  The estate administrators agreed that the collection should go to Kent State.  There were almost 700 pieces, most of which were identified, but others that needed research in order to identify in which film or play Hepburn had worn the item.  Many hours were spent watching films and looking through publicity photographs.

There were also items from her personal wardrobe including thirty-one pairs of slacks, many of which were beige or tan.  Many of the clothes were so small that special mannequins had to be carved of foam.  In order to get a clear picture of how the costumes looked, photos of Katherine Hepburn wearing the costumes were shown as posters behind the displays.  The pieces that were on display were the most important and the ones that had, at the time, been identified.

I often take my journal on museum visits if I think the atmosphere might be right for sketching.  Kent State is rarely crowded, but they do not provide a place to sit, so I only did a few drawings.  I know the dress and jodphurs look too long and skinny, but Hepburn was tall, and the waist of her pants measured 20 inches.

I did a review on this exhibition soon after I saw it in 2011.  I don’t know if it will continue to travel, but if it comes to a museum near you, it is well worth a visit.

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