Frances Hodgson Burnett: the Fashion, Part 4

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 ReadFrances 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.)

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Worth gown circa 1913

 

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.

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Period blue silk vest trimmed in swans down, via i10.photobucket.com or Pinterest

 

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Victorian Edwardian child’s cape/coat trimmed with swan’s down, for sale on Etsy at the time of writing

 

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.

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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.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, an Excellent Read

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Kim drew Little Saint Elizabeth into this illustration in his Alias the Cat!

 

Pam’s Pictorama Post: In some ways it is crazy to think I can tackle this subject in a blog post so I will start by saying, this is a warning shot over the bow – I am just skimming the top of very deep water indeed today with an expectation of subsequent entries.

As the author of childhood favorites such as A Little Princess, The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy we all know Frances Hodgson Burnett and the classic films (and many remakes) made from her stories. I read them as an adult and especially loved The Secret Garden. As much as I liked the film, the book had much more flavor and depth.

I had not however given these stories or her much thought in years however when Kim stumbled on and purchased Little Saint Elizabeth a beautifully illustrated volume of stories, ostensibly for children although the title story is a bit gruesome and had a similar, appalling ending to Anderson’s Little Match Girl. We found it at the now mostly eradicated flea market on 24th Street here in Manhattan. He purchased it for very little and we considered it quite the score.

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From the story Little Saint Elizabeth

 

Somehow it did not inspire further digging at the time and it wasn’t until a few months ago, while whining one night in bed about a delay in receiving my next volume of the Judy Bolton series to arrive (future post about that series pending there), that Kim suggested I poke around Burnett’s adult fiction. (May I just take a moment out to say, you really do want to marry someone who is going to make helpful, smart suggestions like this. I do think it is the very best part of being married and no one thinks to tell you that. Choose wisely I say!)

Thanks to Project Gutenberg this could be accomplished with great alacrity, at the speed of a download. For those of you who have yet to be introduced to it, this is a magnificent site it is free downloadable books and stories, generally focused on early works which are out of copyright. This leads to access to many of the more obscure and hard to find works of early authors which would be prohibitively expense to purchase to read, even if you could find them. I read many of Edna Ferber’s short stories from these downloads.

While in general I might say I prefer to read with a book in my hand, about half my reading is done with these downloads these days. (To be fair, another swath is audio books I listen to at the gym – much contemporary fiction is consumed that way.) A great advantage is that I can pull out my phone and read a bit while on line somewhere or on the subway – it is always with me. My Frances Hodgson Burnett mania has been hell on my reading of the New York Times lately, but the news isn’t all that great these days anyways. And as a result I have had a more contented summer commute than most during horrendous subway delays and waits.

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Photo portrait of Burnett from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery collection

 

Born in England in 1850, she evidently always wrote, even as a child. Her own financial fortunes seemed to wax and wane dramatically from childhood through adulthood much like the story lines of her fiction. Born into affluence her father dies when she is young and the family slowly spirals into poverty which ultimately forces a move to Tennessee to live with an uncle, who in turn becomes impoverished. Burnett begins publishing magazine stories to some success when she is 18, in order to help support her family and she quickly becomes a writing and publishing machine. She eventually marries and has two sons. She is living in Washington with her family when in 1879, on a visit to Boston, she meets Louisa May Alcott and Mary Mapes Dodge, editor of St. Nicholas magazine, and that is when she starts to write children’s fiction. This is of course where her fame will live on.

Meanwhile, an interesting aspect of Burnett’s adult fiction for me is she is another entrant in a long line of women who write about the then modern woman of the day. Pictorama readers may remember my posts about the serial books Grace Harlowe and The Automobile Girls and The Moving Picture Girls (which can be read here) as well as my more recent one, mentioned above, about Edna Ferber, Fervent for Ferber (you can find it here).

In my mind there is a fascinating timeline that can be drawn from, let’s say, Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) and her world of women which by necessity revolved mostly around caring for men and their families, to Burnett – women’s fortunes were still largely dependent on men and marriage, but there is an increasing sense of independence and control of their own destiny. The more independent American woman is frequently brought into contrast with her European (generally British) counterparts, causing all sorts of consternation. After Burnett the truly modern woman slowly emerges – driving cars, working for a living, controlling her own financial destiny – ultimately Edna Ferber’s women sit firmly astride both worlds, working, running businesses and finding their own success. I do hope Burnett and Ferber had a chance to meet, and I am glad Hodgson Burnett lives long enough to have a peek at that world for women. In another universe I believe I am writing a PhD thesis on this.

Even when Hodgson Burnett is writing about men, she is writing about women. I will expand on this theory when I return to this topic and write a bit more about some of the books. For though now I think I have chattered on enough for one Sunday!