Pams Pictorama Post: I am wrapping up this summer reading series on the adult novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett with this post on the lavish and lovingly described clothing in her stories. It is clear from her detailed descriptions that she loved fashion and had thoughts about clothing and what it meant. I share an autochrome of a well dressed woman of the day by Helen Messing, a French photographer, taken in 1912, as the featured image and to set the tone for today. For anyone who has just wandered in, the first three posts can be found clicking on the following: Frances Hodgson Burnett, an Excellent Read; Frances Hodgson Burnett, Part 2: the Grown-up Books;and Frances Hodgson Burnett, Part 3: The Women.
Frances Hodgson Burnett was one of those people who lived long enough and over a time to experience fashion from the days of whale bone corsets to the nebulous non-supportive skivvies of the 1920’s. One interesting quote which I pulled out off the internet concerned her own wedding dress. The story went that she had a long engagement to her first husband, Swan Burnett, and with the earnings from her writing had a couture wedding dress made for herself on a trip to Paris. They were to be married in Tennessee and she shipped the dress there. For whatever reason, now lost in the telling, it was delayed and despite her urging, he would not postpone the wedding for the arrival of the dress. Writing to a friend about her new husband she had this to say, “Men are so shallow … he does not know the vital importance of the difference between white satin and tulle, and cream coloured brocade …”
Wedding dresses are a significant point of discussion in T. Tembarom. In this novel of 1913, the hero finds his foothold as a cub reporter taking over the society page of a New York newspaper. Temple realizes that learning how to describe the wedding dresses accurately will win the favor of the socialites (and their dressmakers) who he needs to befriend for material. Therefore loving descriptions of him laboring to learn the nips and tucks of white peau de cyne trimmed with duchess [sic] lace and other fashionable wedding garb of the carriage trade ensues and descriptions of finery become his stock in trade. I share a photo of something like what he was talking about below, from the period and for sale online if you are so inclined. (Clearly a bit worse for wear but only fair to consider it is over 100 years since it was sewn.)
Later in the same book, Temple’s fondness for his elderly relative is expressed through the wardrobe he has made for her in London. Below is a bit of an excerpt from the novel:
Mrs. Mellish became possessed of an “idea” To create the costume of an exquisite, early-Victorian old lady in a play done for the most fashionable and popular actor manager of the most “drawing-room” of West End theaters, where one saw royalty in the royal box, with bouquets on every side, the orchestra breaking off in the middle of a strain to play “God Save the Queen,” and the audience standing up as the royal party came in—that was her idea. She carried it out, steering Miss Alicia with finished tact through the shoals and rapids of her timidities. And the result was wonderful; color,—or, rather, shades,—textures, and forms were made subservient by real genius. Miss Alicia—as she was turned out when the wardrobe was complete—might have been an elderly little duchess of sweet and modest good taste in the dress of forty years earlier.
In the subsequent pages of the novel, the fragile and shy Miss Alicia is given confidence on several occasions by her extremely well conceived of and thoughtfully considered clothing. (This speaks to my own belief that women’s clothing – and jewelry – are like armor for battle. I urge – choose wisely!)
Like many of her characters, it is reported that Frances turned to her own sewing skills during leaner periods of her life and, among other things, sewed elaborate outfits for her sons – a la Little Lord Fauntleroy. Her writing is peppered with allusions to line and properly made clothes – dresses of old pillaged and remade resourcefully for deserving young, dewy, emerging impoverished belles. I believe I have mentioned the fact of me and sewing – which is that I can re-attached a credible button but not much beyond that. Therefore the idea of remaking dresses and whipping up new ones wholesale is utterly alien to me and vague notions of Project Runway is all I can summon.
In the novel, Vagabondia, published in 1884 we get a glimpse of even earlier fashion. (This is a slightly different type of book about a happy Bohemian family of artists and their salon of hangers on, both rich and not.) The description of a purple dress as trimmed with swan’s down (really?) gave me pause and sent me running to Google. Evidently swan’s down was used as a less expensive replacement for fur, primarily at the end of the 19th and early 20th century. I will spare you the description of how exactly this is extracted from the unfortunate fowl. It was so popular at one time that swans were in danger of extinction.
The concept of a simple white muslin frock with a ribbon belt like the one below comes up in virtually every novel and short story – sometimes as a supporting character, sometimes a main event. In its own way this was the little black dress of its late 19th and early 20th century day – although of course it was the exact opposite as instead of sophistication a la Chanel, it was to show off simplicity and innocence. It was the dress that could be simply sewn and easily afforded, and theoretically allowed the native beauty of the wearer to shine. Burnett has wealthy women of the world who embrace the simple muslin gown as a way of showing their simple underlying beauty – while a clever poor good seamstress could whip one up for herself (or sometimes for a beloved sibling) and unusually beautiful this simple dress could let their beauty shine through – and perhaps even show up some catty, wealthier acquaintances.
While Frances Hodgson Burnett probably would not have been willing to say that clothing makes the man. However, she had a deep understanding of how critical clothes were to how women defined themselves in the world and used it to a descriptive advantage in her stories. At a time when women didn’t have a lot of tools for defining themselves at their disposal, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s interest in them and use of them in her narrative was not coincidental nor casual. My guess is that she had given a lot of thought and understood it in a personal way.