Wednesday, February 16, 2011
The 1790s Project: 1795-1800 Fashion Details
Photo: detail of portrait miniature of Mrs. Jeremiah Atwater, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Portrait miniatures have proven to be a rich source of detail. Miniatures were the photo keepsakes and memorials of their day, and I suspect were often painted naturalistically so the miniature's owner could see their beloved in their true "likeness". To paint the portrait too fancifully would defeat the purpose of memorialization. This is in contrast to full-length portraits, which art historians have long pointed out did include fanciful and/or symbolic elements. See the exhibition book Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman for a current treatment, in the form of a series of essays, of this subject.
Miniatures were far more common than I had realized. In museums they are often not on view, or are stuck away in cabinets where looking at them is a chore for strong eyes. Nor are they run-of-the-mill items in our fine antiques shops, locally, anyway.
However, recently, what with powerful digital cameras and exploding online collections -- and specialty antiques dealer's sites -- they are far easier to find, and often easy to view in detail. I have examined several hundreds of them over time, and have cataloged a long list of them by level of detail, jewelry worn, hairstyles, and so forth. If you would like to browse several collections, try the examples of American miniatures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and miniatures for sale at Antiques and Uncommon Treasure and Aesthetic Engineering Fine Jewels and Antiques (just two among many dealers online).
Journal des Luxus und der Moden, which I shall call Luxus here for short. Some 15-20 years ago I studied German seriously, and then let it lapse when, well, when I fell in love with my husband, met through our mutual German teacher, and life moved on. Anyhow, have been aching to pick it back up. Awhile ago I stumbled upon a complete repository of the journal -- what fun! For the last four years I've been wanting to read a 1790s fashion magazine in full, and Nikolaus Heideloff's Gallery of Fashion frustratingly not being available online (with small children, I do not have the luxury to pore over a microfiche at the university nearby), have found Luxus a double luxury.
Photo: sample of the fashion report from the August 1795 issue of Journal des Luxus und der Moden. Note that the author's fashion report actually dates from early July, although the magazine came out in August.
Luxus was a German publication which reports on German fashion but also fashion elsewhere, such as London, along with cultural news. Now, let me here give the standard caveat about styles. Different regions within Europe, Britain, and the U.S. had their own stylistic takes on fashion appropriate to their local culture and geography, but at that date there were fashion norms that did cross national and geographic borders, and fashion-conscious women over the Western world did tend to follow the general norm, at least in outlines. Any examination of portrait miniatures will make this abundantly clear.
Anyhow, when I read the fashion news in Luxus, and look at plates from English fashion magazines, and then look at miniatures, prints, and paintings, I see the general outlines syncing up, while regional and cultural and age and individual and artistic differences make for fascinating analyses. What's delightful about having a full text available, is that we get so much more information about what was hot, and useful details for interpreting the construction of particular ensembles pictured.
Here then is an examination of one of these miniatures, in relation to some fashion plates and accompanying text from Luxus, plus a few notes from Gallery of Fashion. I have made some notes about what I believe may be the details we are looking at. Remember that what I write are attempts, essays, at understanding and are by no means the analysis of an expert.
Let's start. As always, click on the image for a larger version.
Mrs. Jeremiah Atwater, circa 1795
A portrait miniature at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Let's examine some details.
Here below is a detail from plate 23 in Luxus.
In just a year or two after 1795, the use of lace at the neckline would go out of fashion for a bit, as the craze for severely classical plainness took hold.
Gallery of Fashion, gold hoops were most commonly illustrated this year, for instance the lady in plate 23, although there are a few button-style or bead loop styles. Hoops were hot. Gold was hot.
On to more details in Mrs. Atwater's ensemble.
Mrs. Atwater is wearing a long-sleeved robe over her chemise. It's of the type that does not close in front. There is a gorgeous example in brown silk of this sort of robe, from 1797, in Anne Bissonnette's Ohio and the Western Frontier: 1790-1840 book from Kent State University (and see a video of the exhibition, but sadly, not showing the robe. You have to have the book; as of this writing Kent State does not offer an image archive).
This robe is embroidered in what appear to be blues and pinks or reds along the edge. Some Heideloff fashion plates show this sort of edging, and the Met has a circa 1798 example of a faux robe over what it names a round gown that sports pretty multi-color embroidery. The way the paint is treated in the Atwater miniature, the belt appears to go over the robe to hold it in place. A robe, so far as I can tell from fashion plates, texts, and extant garment descriptions, was worn for more formal occasions. Have a look at the plates and text from the Gallery of Fashion preserved on Cathy Decker's old site, and you will see that robes are described for afternoon or evening dress, while dresses alone, or dresses with shawls or what look like long stoles, are worn instead for morning dress.
Mrs. Atwater is indoors. She is not wearing any headdress; I cannot tell if it's because this is a more formal occasion, or what. Her hair is dressed frizzed in front and with the back hair long, straightish, and "flying", as Luxus puts it, in locks, though it might be looped up in a sort of loose chignon, also a popular style. The Luxus plate 23 wears her hair "geschlangelt-kraus und fliegend", or roughly, "coiled and flying". I had some trouble with the "-kraus" word: the Fraktur typeface German text was printed in back then can be difficult to make out.
Well, thus ends the little analysis. It's not complete, and it leaves some questions, but this is what I love about comparing portrait miniatures with fashion plates, fashion texts, and extant clothing. Each bit of evidence has given us key information about ensembles worn in 1795 that individual types of evidence alone cannot.