Tag Archives: fashion history

Currently Reading: How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards

Today is a really great time to be interested in fashion history and how people dressed in the past.  When I first “discovered” fashion history, the reading choices were quite limited. What was available before the 1990s was usually in the form of dry chronological fashion studies or fashion encyclopedias.

Contrast that with the present when there are almost too many choices.  Fashion history, it seems, sells, as not just museums, but also book publishers have discovered. Unfortunately, not all the fashion books published in the past twenty-five years are good. Because of this I’ve gotten pretty particular about which books get added to my library.

One thing I look for when deciding whether to order a new book, is the author and his or her credentials. Not that I’m a fashion intellectual snob; my own degree is, after all in Early American history. But I’ve found that the very best books are written by someone who is either a professional in fashion studies, or has considerable experience in studying historic fashion. There are exceptions of course.

Another thing I look for is a new approach.  I don’t need another basic survey of fashion history, nor do I need another book on “vintage fashion.” I’m always looking for a new way of looking at garments, and on this level, How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards, really delivers. Technically, this book might be considered a survey of fashion history, but it is the author’s use of photos of garments that sets this book apart.

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Edwards starts her survey in 1550 and ends in 1970. It is a chronological study, which helps one to see the subtle, and not so subtle changes that occurred in fashion.  Most importantly, Edwards points out what is important in each garment.

For me, this book was especially helpful in showing me the changes made between 1790 and 1918.  I have a pretty good grasp of twentieth century fashion, but I’ll be the first to admit I need to learn more about fashion prior to WWI.

Another plus in this book is the use of garments from museums that are not commonly seen.  Instead of relying solely on garments from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert, Edwards uses images from museums in Australia, Canada, Britain, and the USA. It’s a very refreshing change from the same couture garments that are pictured over and over in publications and on websites.

It serves to remind us there are fashion treasures all over the world.  I was especially pleased to see garments from the collection of the North Carolina Museum of History in the book.  I’ve been in their collection rooms, and I know what a great and extensive collection is there, and yet, these clothes are rarely seen.

I’m hoping this book does well, and that a second edition is published.  As much as I love the book, there were several photos of black garments that were incredibly hard to read.  There are also a few editing errors – repeated lines, seemingly mislabeled photos, and a contradiction or two of place of creation.  But I’m knit-picking. This is a beautiful, well written book.  The photos are a joy to study, and I finished it wishing it were twice as long.

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Threads of History at SCAD FASH in Atlanta

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Last week I traveled to Atlanta to see the latest exhibitions at SCAD FASH.  There were two – Embellished: Adornment through the Ages, and Threads of History: Two Hundred Years of Fashion.  Embellished was all about accessories, while Threads was a timeline, starting with clothing from the late eighteenth century.  I was very happy that SCAD FASH was mounting these two exhibitions on historical dress, as their previous shows have featured primarily modern clothes.

The great majority of the clothes on view are from the collection of Italian collector Raffaello Piraino, which means that most of the clothing is European in origin.  I’ll have more to say about that later on.

The earliest works were men’s and women’s clothes from the 1770s.  The man’s coat is called a habit à la française, and the woman’s dress is a robe à la française.  I am going to be completely honest and say this is not my area of expertise, but I absolutely love the richly embroidered men’s coats and vests of the eighteenth century.  It makes me wonder why men today settle for the blandness of their modern attire.

I saw this exhibition with my friend Liza, who is much more knowledgeable about pre-twentieth century fashion than I am.  But we both thought that the woman’s dress looked a bit odd.  The exhibitions notes did not say, but instead of a stomacher to fill in the bodice, they used that rust-colored fabric.  The same color fabric was used for the petticoat, and it led us to think maybe they were reproductions.

Moving into the nineteenth century, we were presented with this lovely cotton muslin dress.  But again, we thought it looked to be mounted in an unusual manner.  From the back it looks like a lovely early Regency dress.

Can anyone help me figure this out?  I’m pretty sure that those triangular pieces would have gone under the breasts.

These two garments seemed like they just stepped out of a Jane Austen novel.  Both are early 1800s.

I really do love the fashion of the 1830s.  It’s a period that tends to get overlooked, coming between the Regency and the larger crinolines to come in the 1850s and 60s.  My photo does not do justice to these beauties.

Continuing along through time, we come to the age of the crinoline – the 1850s and 60s.  There were some stunning examples on display, with this dress and interesting jacket being a favorite.

Those sleeves!

One thing that made this exhibition so interesting was the addition of custom made sets for the mid to late nineteenth century clothing.  Designed and made by some of the faculty of SCAD, I thought they added a lot to the atmosphere of the clothing.  This was almost like being in a mid-Victorian parlor.

I’m not sure how this photo turned out to be so light, as the exhibition itself was quite dark, at times, distractingly so.  I know that light must be carefully managed when dealing with old textiles, but parts of the exhibition hall were so dark it was hard to make out the details.  Add to that the lights coming through the floor, and it made viewing hard at times.

As I’ve said in the past, one of the strengths of how SCAD FASH manages exhibitions is the ability to arrange the clothing so that it can be viewed from more than one side.  You could see these mid nineteenth century dresses from almost every angle.

The next set of dresses was placed in a Victorian cabinet of curiosities.  With bustles galore, the setting evoked a steampunky mood of fashion meets science.  I loved it, and suggest you go back to the top and enlarge the photo of this entire vignette.

I will repeat, I am a poor student of the high fashion of the Victorian era.  Still, some of the bustles looked so large!

By the nineteenth century fashion magazines spread the latest throughout the Western world, but I am sure there must have been huge regional differences.  All of these 1870s and 1880s dresses came from Palermo, Italy.  Would a grouping from Cincinnati look much different?

The next grouping featured dresses from the 1880s and 1890s.  You can see the famous “leg ‘o mutton” sleeve on the circa 1895 dress on the right.  So handy for dating, that sleeve!

One of my favorite looks was the poorly photographed example that is seated.  It was described as a tea dress, and it has a lot of the hallmarks of the Liberty of London historical dress crowd.  And what would a showing of Victorian dress be without a paisley shawl?

The blue and white dress in the center back was a puzzler to me.  From the exhibition brochure, “Sunday dress with a silk skirt, Prussian blue velvet bodice and a lace appliqued collar, 1880.”  The skirt seems to be an odd shape for 1880.

This dress was dated 1885.  You can still see the bustle, which is beautifully cut and pleated.  And the lace was marvelous.

This dress was stunning in person. made of silk with hand embroidered bodice.  The exhibition notes date it as 1915, but I’m thinking it is a bit earlier, maybe 1908 or so.  Opinions?

In the foreground is one of two House of Worth dresses in the exhibition.  Early twentieth century, with all the bells and whistles one would expect to see in a Belle Époque masterpiece.  This dress is part of the SCAD FASH permanent collection.  The white dress is from about the same time.

A stunning early twentieth century trio, starting with an evening wrap made from silver metallic tulle, embroidered and appliqued with satin.   The middle is a Fortuny Delphos dress in the richest blue imaginable (drat that lighting!).  It is in the SCAD collection.

I loved this late nineteen-teens black lace, beaded dress, especially because of the beaded girdle.

What a marvelous use of color!

There was a line of pretty 1920s frocks, but I found this one to be the most interesting with the matching shawl.

The 1930s were well represented as well, with sleek bias cut gowns.  My favorite, though, was this rayon dress with the Letty Lynton inspired sleeves.  In the background you can get a peek at a late 1940s suit, posed on a staircase, surrounded by her luggage.

And finally, another favorite was this incredible 1950s coat from Lanvin-Castillo.  The color, the buttons, the sleeves!

Threads of History will be on display until March 19, 2017.  Thanks to Liza for letting me use some of her photos.  Next up, some accessories from Embellished.

 

 

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Currently Reading: The Dress Detective by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim

If you notice the subtitle of this recently published book, A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion, then you might have correctly guessed that I love this book.  Written by two museum professionals, the book gives an organized method of evaluating any piece of clothing.

One of the old criticisms of dress studies was that professionals often gave the appearance of being concerned with just what can be measured.  The description of an item in a collection might give the dimensions in minute detail, every smudge and tear would be measured and noted, and every bead counted.  But what did all this information tell the researcher?

The answer is quite a lot, as long as you are asking the right questions.  In order to understand a garment, the first step is observation.  The means to note not only the things that can be measured, but also other information contained within the garment itself.  Are there any alterations?  What is the fiber content?  Are there labels?  Mida and Kim give a list of forty questions that help you gather the information in the garment.

The next step is to reflect on the information and what it means.  You also need to take time and reflect on your own reaction to the garment.  Would you wear it?  Does it appeal to the senses?  Are you reminded of other garments by some aspect of it?  Is there any documentation on this garment?  Reflection is time-consuming, but is a necessary step in understanding the garment and where it fits into an area of study.

The last step is interpretation in which you connect all the information and make conclusions.  Your conclusions will depend on what your objectives of study were to begin with.  This is what makes the study of fashion so fascinating.

The authors work through each of the three steps, and then they present seven case studies using their method.  All the right questions are asked as each garment is closely observed.  There are plenty of photographs to show what they are looking at as it is described.

One of the case studies is a Lanvin wedding dress and matching veil. By close observation it was determined that this dress had been altered.

Close-up photographs show that the fabric in the sleeves is a newer, synthetic fabric, and is not original to the dress.  The original trim was reused on the new sleeves.

The label is missing from the dress, but is still present in the veil.  You can see that some material (and awkward stitching) had been added to the veil.

Another case study was of a late Victorian velveteen and wool bodice.  Part of the reflection of the piece involved looking at period fashion plates to find similar styles.  This helps not only with dating but might also provide clues into the social and economic class of the original wearer.

Also of use is the study of period photos.  It is rare (but delightful) to have a photograph of the wearer of the actual garment, but even photos of people wearing similar garments can be of use.

As this garment is close to the era of ready-made clothing, another avenue of study might be into the way companies like Eaton in Canada, and Sears in the US were operating dressmaking services.  Could this bodice have been made in this manner?

These interior shots show the complexity of construction.

The book was written as a guide for students and researchers, but I think many people who deal with clothing could learn a lot from it about how to read a garment.  I especially liked the sections on taking what you see in the garment and looking for external information .  In the world of the internet it is increasingly easy to search museum databases, find newspaper ads and references, and to find similar garments for sale.  Information about labels is readily available on the Vintage Fashion Guild’s Label Resource.

The Dress Detective does not give the researcher all the knowledge that one will need in looking at old clothes.  It would take a much larger book to tell things like when the NRA eagle label was used, the invention of the zipper, or the first use of synthetic fabrics.  These are the facts that have to be learned by the researcher, or else researched.  A book of these dating tidbits would make a great companion to The Dress Detective.

 

 

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High Style at the Cincinnati Art Museum

I spent a lot of time this past spring and early summer looking at the Instagrams of people in San Francisco and being really jealous.  That’s because they were torturing me with their fantastic photos from a traveling exhibition from the Met’s Costume Institute, High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection.  So I was delighted to hear that the last showing was to be in Cincinnati, which is only a five hour drive from me.

We decided to wait for a good weekend weather-wise, and that gift came earlier than expected.  Last week we loaded the car and headed north to take in the exhibition, and to explore Cincinnati, a city we’d never before visited.  I’m not going to beat around the bush.  If you are anywhere near Cincinnati before January 24, 2016, when the show closes for good, you must see this exhibition.

This is especially true if you did not have the opportunity to see the Met’s Charles James: Beyond Fashion show last year.  Much of the James material, including some amazing computer deconstructions of the clothing on exhibit is included in this show.  I’ll tell more about that in part two of this review.

The exhibition covers the 20th century, and includes both fashion from Europe and the United States.  Above is the back of a Jeanne Lanvin silver lamé dress, summer 1923.  Many of the garments were arranged so that the front was on view, and then you turned a corner to see the back.  To me the back of this dress was the most interesting, with the obi-like train and its (barely visible) Lanvin blue lining.  The embroidery was made with very thin ribbons.

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Here are what are probably my favorites in the entire show.   The two capes or wraps are from Liberty & Co. of London, and they are effectively displayed over Fortuny dresses.  Both capes are silk brocade, woven in a peacock feather pattern, a design by Liberty textile designer Arthur Silver.

To the right you get a glimpse of two Callot Soeurs ensembles, both made for Rita de Costa Lydig circa 1913.  Lydig was a collector of antique lace which Callot Soeurs used in their work for her.  Note that the “dresses” under the lace vest and tunic are actually pants.

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In the center are two 1920s dresses.  The lace dress is from Jeanne Lanvin, 1925.  The red is from the lesser-known Suzanne Talbot, but it is a real stunner.  Also from 1925, it is made from one long length of silk.

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The simple frock on the left is from Jean Patou.  Patou was known for his sports clothes, and was very influential in establishing the sporty look of the 1920s.  The middle evening dress was not attributed, but proves that a dress need not have a label in order to be fabulous.  The beaded and embroidered dress on the right is from designer Edward Molyneux, 1925.

And just in case you were wondering why I included a photo of the Patou, here’s a close-up of the details.  It is a not-so-simple, simple little frock.

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Both of these dresses are by Elsa Schiaparelli, who was well-represented in the exhibition.  That is a very good thing, as Schiaparelli garments are rarely seen, so it was a real treat to see not only the dresses, but also some of her surrealist jewelry.  The butterfly dress and parasol date from 1937. The blue dress is actually appliqued using cut-outs from a fabric printed with seed packets, one of which forms a pocket.  There is an exposed zipper in the back, a common Schiap treatment, one that  has been repeated in recent years.

One of the real stars of the show (no pun, seriously!) was this Schiaparelli jacket from her 1938 Zodiac collection.  The embroidery was by Lesage, the Rolls Royce of French embroiderers.  Simply amazing.

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The lovely Grecian creation on the left is from Hungarian-American designer Eta Hentz.  Manufacturing under the name Ren-Eta Gowns, it’s a bit hard to imagine that this dress was ready-to-wear.  1944.

One the right is one of the many Elizabeth Hawes dresses that was in the Brooklyn Museum collection.  When the collection was taken to the Met in 2009, many of the Hawes pieces were deacquisitioned and sent to auction,a move I did not understand considering the rarity of Hawes pieces.  But it is obvious they kept the masterworks if this dress is an example.  Look closely to see that there is gold piping between the pieces that shape the waist, and the shaping continues to the back where the pieces seem to ripple like a waterfall to the hem.  It is a stunning dress.

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The dark pink dress (and jacket)  is from Madeleine Vionnet, circa 1935.  It is, of course, made from a bias-cut silk.  The black dress is also by Vionnet.

The white evening dress is from Madame Alix Gres, 1937.  It’s construction is interesting, as each half (left and right) is actually just one long length of uncut fabric that goes from the hem in front, is folded to form the peplum, across the shoulder, folded again, and then to the hem.

The copper dress is also from Madame Gres, and is maybe the oddest Gres I’ve ever seen.  Still, there is plenty of her trademark pleating and volume.

I’ll continue my tour of High Style in my next post.  I want to finish this one by saying what a great job the Met and the Cincinnati Art Museum have done in making this exhibition such a great experience.  The exhibition space was spread out in such a way that one could view the clothes without feeling crowded or rushed.  Most of the clothes were not behind glass, and so it let the visitors get really close to examine the details.  It was simply a great fashion history experience.

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Currently Reading – Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America

Suiting Everyone was published in 1974 as a work to go with an exhibition of the same name at the Smithsonian.  Written by curators Claudia Kidwell and Margaret Christman, the book  is about the history of ready-to-wear clothing, and how it changed from being cheaply made garments for the poor to being available at all prices and to suit all Americans.

I found the subtitle to be especially interesting.  Today fashion people are always talking about how designer collaborations with stores like Target and H&M have led to the democratization of fashion.  What they don’t seem to realize, and something that the book does an excellent job of explaining, is that fashion became “democratized” over one hundred years ago with the rise of the ready-to-wear industry.  Fashionable clothing has been available for most Americans for over a century.

It’s not a process that happened over night.  There were a lot of things that had to fall into place to make the mass production of clothing possible.  A big factor was, of course, the Industrial Revolution with inventions ranging from the cotton gin to the sewing machine.  But there were other, more obscure players in this story, such as how the War of 1812 led to the idea of the standardization of sizes, at least for men’s clothing.

Partly because of fit issues, and the problems solved by the US Army in making uniforms, ready-to-wear for men came about much earlier than that for women.  The earliest ready-mades for women were items that did not require a close fit, like these loose-fitting tea gowns of 1898.  Blouses, or waists as they were referred to then, underwear, and skirts were also early ready-made products for women.

Other early ready-mades for women included outerwear like capes and mantles.  This is a golf cape from 1899.  This garment was called a golf cape because they were made from plaids which come from Scotland which is where golf originated.  It was a bit of a reach!

Sporting attire, especially bathing suits, were another category of ready-mades.  The examples on the above left are from 1898.  On the right you can see some cycling suits from 1897.

And while the catalog does show one knicker suit, there are seven suits that are short skirts.  Note the knickers peeking out from under the skirt in the middle outfit.

The survey of ready-to-wear goes up to the present day, or at least at the time of the writing.  Things have changed so much in the clothing manufacturing that it would be easy to double the size of the book just from the events of the past forty years.

In the preface to the book Claudia Kidwell tells how when planning the exhibition the Smithsonian staff realized they did not have the variety of garments necessary to represent all the ideas they wanted to illustrate.  To get the needed clothing they announced to the public that they were in need of clothing from the 1920s through the 1970s.  The internet did not invent crowd-sourcing.

This book was a gift from reader and friend Lynn Mally who writes the AmericanAgeFashion blog.  We have this transcontinental book exchange going that just happened naturally when we realized we have shared interests.  It makes me see just how important it is to me to be able to connect with so many fashion history lovers.  The internet is a true miracle.

From going to the Costume Society symposium last week, I also realized that gatherings like that one are also very important in the sharing and exchange of ideas.  One of the papers that was presented was about how clothing for slaves in America was some of the very first ready-to-wear, with there being ads for this clothing being placed in Charleston newspapers as early as the mid eighteenth century.  The book touched on this very briefly, and so the paper tied in perfectly with what I’d just been reading.  This research adds a great deal to the story of ready-made clothing.

Another of the presenters and I found that our research had over-lapped somewhat.  As a graduate student some years ago she had interviewed twelve women who came of age in the same small town during the 1920s.  Her questions centered on their dress during a time when hemlines got very short and which is today described as being “scandalous.”  When she asked each if they ever wore any “scandalous” garment, several laughed and replied that yes, they had been very bad and had worn knickers.  One even went so far as to put on her brother’s knickers and walk with friends to the next town, just to show off.

I want to thank all who read and commented, and all those who emailed saying that you liked my “Knickerbockers” paper.  The best comments have to be from Karen of SmallEarthVintage, who read my description of the 1920s knickers-wearing girl, and knew I was talking about her grandmother.  Karen is lucky to have a full range of photos of her grandmother wearing pants, starting with her as a teen in the 1920s wearing her knickers, to her as a grandmother in the 1970s, still wearing her pants.

As I concluded in my paper,  “The knickers-wearing girls of the 1920s became the pantsuit–wearing grandmothers of the 1970s, who had learned years earlier the comfort and practicality of pants.”  I could not have found a better example than Karen’s Grandmother Edna.

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Currently Reading – Nautical Chic by Amber Jane Butchart

I’ve been reading fashion history books for a very long time, and I’ve come to a conclusion:  the best books have a narrow focus that is meticulously researched combined with illustrations that clearly illustrate the author’s points.  So often books about “vintage fashion” or even overviews of fashion history fail to hit the mark because the author tries to cover too much territory in too few pages.  Of course, every fashion library needs to have a few volumes that are just fashion history overviews, but once the basics are covered, it is then time to narrow the focus.

Nautical Chic is such a tightly focused book.  I follow author Amber Jane Butchart on Twitter and Instagram, and over the past year or so I’ve read about her on-going research of the influence of the sea upon fashion.  You know a historian is really enjoying her topic when she can’t help but post the great information she is uncovering on twitter.

Butchart identified five major influences of nautical fashion: the officer, the sailor, the fisherman, the sportsman and the pirate. Each chapter is filled with information and illustrations from the seventeenth century through the twenty-first.  The illustrations are a mix of contemporary fashion photos, vintage advertising, historic  lithographs, old photos and photos of examples of vintage and modern clothing.

The officer influence can be seen both in a fashion plate from 1827 and in the work of Alexander McQueen, 1996.

The sailor gave us the middy, or midshipman’s blouse.  On the left you can see Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1928 sweater that incorporates  trompe l’oeil to depict the middy.  Beside it is a 1996 version from designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac.  And on the right is a middy blouse from Yohji Yamamoto, 2007.

It seems like everyone loves a good Breton fisherman’s pullover shirt.  The one above is from French maker St. James.  On the right you see Coco Chanel in a sweater inspired by the chandails of fishermen from Normandy.  Beside it is Karl Lagerfeld’s updated version.

The yachtsman’s sporting attire was easily adapted to fashionable cruise and seashore clothing.  The yachtswoman on the left dates from 1899.  On the right is a fashion illustration from 1932.

And finally, the pirate influence dates from the 1600s, and today is probably most associated with Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano.  Above notice the 1920s “pirates” on the far left.  The modern day pirate is from Marni, 2010, and the two on the right are from 1966.

I love the mix of illustrations, pulled from many different sources.  So often in fashion history books one see the same old photos over and over, but in Nautical Chic there are just a handful that I’ve seen in other resources.  To me this is important.  If an author takes the time to insure that the illustrations are fresh, then it is a good sign that the research is as well.

I really enjoyed reading the text.  It was full of fascinating facts and connections that I’d never made.  For example, it was the Americans Gerald and Sara Murphy who introduced the striped marinière  to their fashionable friends in 1923.  These friends included Hemingway, Picasso, and the Scott Fitzgeralds.  Now we are all wearing the marinière in some form.

To someone like me who loves sportswear, and who loves the stories behind objects, Nautical Chic was a true delight.

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Style and Influence: First Ladies’ Fashions

I usually share links to other sites during my Vintage Miscellany posts, but this video is so interesting (and so long) that I thought it deserved a bit of extra attention.  This is a video of an event that was held in Washington, DC last week.  Hosted by the US National Archives, it is a conversation about the fashions of the First Ladies.

The moderator is Tim Gunn of Project Runway, along with Valerie Steele of the Museum at FIT, Lisa Kathleen Graddy of the First Ladies Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and fashion designer Tracy Reese who has dressed Mrs. Obama.  Each participant brought an interesting perspective and set of knowledge, and Gunn kept the program moving.

Many of the clothing examples shown came from the Smithsonian’s collection.  For years there was a wonderful exhibition that started with Martha Washington and featured a dress from each First Lady.  They were all lined up in chronological order and it was an excellent timeline of two hundred years of fashion.

Several years ago this exhibition was taken down and was reinstalled as a sampling of clothes and personal items from the First Ladies.  I’m so glad that I got to see the First Ladies in all their glory, as the new exhibition is not nearly so impressive.  It is, however, wildly popular.  I was there last spring and had to squeeze into the smallish gallery along with busloads of field-tripping schoolgirls.  Still, it is a must-see exhibition for the visitor to Washington.

The question was asked of the panel participants: “Which First Lady’s style do you most admire?”  To me it is Dolley Madison, if only for the fact that she came from the North Carolina backwater and was reared as a Quaker, and went on to be one to the style leaders of her day.  Feel free to answer the question in the comments, and do yourself a favor and take an hour and a half to enjoy this program.

 

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