Category Archives: Textiles

The Memory Hoop Fad: 1890

memory hoop fad tarnished penny discovered

SOLONS’ DAUGHTERS.

How the Young Ladies of Washington Amuse Themselves.

The Craze for Fads—How “Memory Hoops” Are Made and Manipulated

Special Correspondence of the Evening Express.

Washington, March 8, 1890.

Every girl in Washington is hunting for a fad. She has no particular idea as to what sort of a fad she wants so long as it is a fad and its possession enables her to say to her three or four dozen intimate friends: “Oh I’ve just got the loveliest fad you ever heard of.” And then she goes on to tell how she got the idea “from something Jack said.” Now there are a lot of pretty girls in Washington and as they all want fads the demand greatly exceeds the supply and as a consequence the girl without any ingenuity of her own soon finds herself where the little boat was—a long way behind—in the fashionable stream.

Well the Washington girl with not much to do has invented and taken up with the vigor of idle enthusiasm a substitute for the old fashioned “memory buttons” and calls the new departure “memory hoops.” I do not wish to be understood as casting any unkind reflection upon the disposed bustle, for the new fad is not that kind of a hoop. The following description was given me by an enthusiastic votary of the “memory hoops:”

“You see you take a hoop. Any kind of a hoop. Some of the girls have old barrel hoops and some of them have the hoops made out of the loveliest kinds of wood. Why, I know one girl who has a hoop made of gentlemen’s walking sticks which she first begged from the possessors and then had steamed and bent into circular form, connecting them with silver bands. Oh yes; you asked where the memory parts comes in. Well it’s just this way: You take the hoop and hang it up anywhere in the parlor or in your own room. Some of the girls hang them so that when standing before their dressing tables the hoops are just over their heads. Well, of course there is nothing in just the hoops about memory. You see, after you get a hoop you ask all your girl friends for a piece of ribbon. Mind, it must be a piece that has been worn, else the charm will not work. Well, of course the girls will exchange ribbons with you and this is supposed to give you enough to start on by winding them around the hoop so as to cover it, each piece being worked with the name and date of the giver. Now, when you have your hoop covered, your work is just begun. The ribbons the girls give you of course don’t count for much, but they start the thing. Then you are to get from all the men you know one of the old-fashioned copper 2-cent pieces, polished on each side so that it just looks like a piece of plain copper and on one side must be engraved the initials of the giver with the date, and on the other side a line of poetry. These must all be paid for by the young lady receiving them at the rate of 10 cents each to defray their cost, but so that you may have given silver for copper and you know you couldn’t well give less than ten cents in silver. Then these copper pieces are to be tied all around the hoop with ribbon matching the dress worn by the young lady when receiving the piece of copper. I think this is where the best part of the memory comes in, for a girl never forgets her dresses. Now, when you have filled your hoop, you hang it up and whenever any one of the copper pieces grows black it means that the giver is in trouble or sickness and the girl must write to him at once. See the idea now? Oh, it’s just splendid, even if it doesn’t always work about the sickness and all that. When the hoops are filled with the little copper pieces dangling from different colored ribbon, it makes a very pretty ornament, indeed, for either the parlor or your own room.”

Then the memory hoop girl went off to get some coppers.

One can imagine the extent to which this fad is going by the fact that I was told at Brentano’s place here that all the men who came in there with girls asked for two cent copper pieces in their change, and at one of the swell candy stores change proprietor actually took the trouble to send to New York for the coppers, and having obtained a lot of them let the fact become known and materially increased his trade thereby.

Los Angeles [CA] Evening Express 15 March 1890: p. 3

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Young ladies seem to be forever badgering their beaux—if not for ice-cream or visits to the soda-parlour—then for their walking sticks, their hats, those hats’ ribbon bands, or their ties to cut up for crazy-quilts. This is merely one more instance of this magpie behaviour.  The “memory button” fad was an ambitious scheme to collect buttons, preferably all unique in style, from the greatest number of friends. As a novel from 1918, remembering the 1860s, relates:

[J]ust as your scholarly attainments were gauged by the size of your geography and slate, so was your social prestige measured by the length and beauty of your “string.”

The Loyalty of Elizabeth Bess, E.C. Scott, 1918: p. 143

This solicitation of coppers and their associated ribbons suggests those trees found in the British Isles, tied with rags or with coins hammered into them for luck. It is a curiously superstitious artifact to find in hard-headed Washington D.C.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

Book Bindings to Match Costumes: 1907

Book Bindings to Match Costumes

If prayer-books are bound to match costumes, why not other books? Here is a hint for the publishers. Your next big book—your next “Coniston” [the best-selling novel in the United States for 1906] or “Helena Richie,” or what not—why not try an experiment, and bind the first edition in several different colors, so that the “society woman” can have her fill of harmony? The word came to us from Newport recently, in the morning paper—always absolutely reliable—that on a Sunday certain “fashionable” women, names given in full, appeared at church, each carrying a prayer-book to match her costume. One was of lavender leather, corresponding with hat, dress and parasol; others were pink, or white, or black covered with heavy crape—to go with a mourning costume. Now, it is natural to assume that each woman possessed more than the one prayer-book that appeared on that particular Sunday. Otherwise, Miss So-and-So would have to wear that pink frock every time she went to church, if she had only the pink prayer-book. She must have needed to buy books of several different colors to match as many costumes—red, white and blue, not only; but black, yellow, green; purple perhaps—who knows?

Plainly, that must be profitable both to publisher and book-seller—to sell the same young woman ten or a dozen prayer-books instead of one.

Don’t you see, book-publisher? On the same principle, when you bring out that great novel, “The Fly-away and the Come-down,” she will require at least a half-dozen copies of it in different colors to harmonize with various gowns in hammock and yacht, on piazza and lawn, in drawing-room and beside the holiday fireplace.

Unless, of course, these “fashionable” society-leaders should have a secret agreement to pass around their prayer books and novels. If the young Woman can borrow a pink prayer-book to match her pink frock this Sunday, a white one for next Sunday, a green one for the Sunday after, and so on, she might not care to buy prayer-books in a bunch—or novels. either. Unthinkable. however; the generosity and large-mindedness of these leaders is against it—the same broadmindedness that appeared in arraying the prayer-book in pink and lavender. We all revere and love the humble prayer book, whatever our denominational affiliations: how much more when arrayed in gorgeous robes at the demand of great minds! ‘

With people of this progressive kind to deal with the book—publishers should feel warranted in undertaking almost any sort of a color venture. It’s yours; take the hint for whatever it is worth.

Carlos T. Chester

Book News: An Illustrated Magazine of Literature and Books, 1907: p. 100

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil has seen coloured bindings taken a step further, in illustrations of books arranged according to colour rather than content, something of which she strongly disapproves on the grounds that it gives trouble to colour-blind guests in search of something to read.

The prayer-book fad referred to above is referenced in this squib:

A Clever Woman

A lady of fine artistic taste has discovered that at church parade her prayer book, by its incongruous color, entirely ruined the effect of a carefully conceived costume. It struck a discord in an otherwise perfectly harmonious dress. This has been remedied by having a cover to her prayer book which shall be perfectly in accord with the leading tone of her garments. The prayer book cover will henceforth receive as attentive consideration as the bonnet, the gloves, and the sunshade, and no jarring note of color will be introduced by means of a volume bound in blue velvet or in scarlet morocco. London Graphic.

Goshen [IN] Democrat August 24, 1892: p. 6

There is, Mrs Daffodil is assured, a secret Cabal that meets to decide what colours will be the fashionable hues of the season; these colours then pervade dress, household goods, linens, and furnishings. While Mrs Daffodil notes that covers for the electronic book-readers are available in various colours and patterns, there seems to be no concerted effort to co-ordinate the covers with the wardrobe. With all of the wizardry available on “mobile phones” or “tablets,” Mrs Daffodil is surprised that there is not a “chameleon app” to customize the devices’ outward appearance automatically.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

Something Suitable:1889

SOMETHING SUITABLE.

By E.B.W.

“Here is your invitation at last, Margaret!” Mrs. Darton exclaimed, as she pushed open the door of the kitchen, where her youngest daughter sat by the table peeling and slicing the apples her sister Mary was converting, -with dough and paste-cutter, into substantial tarts for half-a-dozen hungry school-boys.

“Hurrah!” and Margaret joyfully waved above her head a long, ribbonlike strip of green and crimson peel. “This is good news, mamma! Blessings light on Aunt Bessie for remembering me, though she has been a long time about it.”

“Three weeks,” said Mrs. Darton, smiling at her daughter’s enthusiasm. “It is no more since she landed in England, and I met her at Gravesend. She accounts in this note for her silence. Business detained her in London for a week, since when she has been looking for a house. She has been advised to take one on the south coast till she and her daughters are hardened to our changeable climate; so many years in India makes them dread an English winter.”

Margaret’s face lengthened.

“Is Aunt Bessie going to bury herself in the country? I thought–that is I hoped–she would settle near town.”

“She has decided on a house at Torquay; but, as it will not be ready for her till the end of next month, she proposes spending the interval at Brighton, and you are to go to her there.”

“Brighton in the heart of the autumn season ! Delicious !” ejaculated Margaret, springing up to waltz her mother round the kitchen, attempting to repeat the dance with her laughing sister, who kept her at bay -with the rolling-pin. “What a lucky girl I am to have a rich aunt, good-natured enough to give me such a delightful change! There’s one drawback, and that is leaving home. Why doesn’t she invite you too, mother dear, and Mary?”

“As if I could leave papa and the boys!” cried Mrs. Darton.

“Or as if I could be spared,” added Mary. “At five-and-twenty one feels too sober for much holiday making. I shall have a day’s blackberry-picking with the youngsters, and go to the cathedral town for the choral festival, and to the park for the annual picnic of the townspeople; and that is all the dissipation I care for.”

“Query. Shall I be as content, at twenty-five, as my sister?” asked Margaret, demurely, “Perhaps I shall, if I have an amiable young curate to strengthen my resolves with his praises. Don’t blush, Mary, and don’t menace me with such a dangerous weapon. It might fly out of your hand, and I could not go to aunt Bessie’s with a bruised cheek or a black eye. By the way, what day am I to start?”

“Next Monday. Her maid will meet you at King’s Cross.”

“And I shall say adieu to the flats of Cambridgeshire for one short, sweet, too fleeting month! But oh, mother dear, the great question of all has yet to be discussed. What am I to wear? I should not like to go shabby; but I know you will not be justified in asking papa for money just as he has been at such heavy expense in articling Will to Messrs. Stapylton.”

“It’s all right,” replied Mrs. Darton, cheerfully. ” Your Aunt Bessie thought of this before I did, and promised to send you something suitable to wear.”

Margaret winced, for she was young and proud.

“It’s very kind of her, she murmured, slowly; “but it makes me feel like a pauper.”

“I don’t think you need say that, my dear,” her mother made answer. “Before my sister left England, to become the second wife of Judge Laurence, your father had given her the advantage of his time and talents, and enabled her to get possession of some property withheld by a very knavish attorney. Papa positively refused to be paid for his services, and she remembers this, and rejoices to requite him through his children. She is going to send Maurice to college as soon as he is old enough. I am so thankful; for a country doctor, with a large family like ours, cannot always give his sons as thorough an education as he wishes.”

“If Aunt Bessie is going to be a fairy godmother to the boys, I shall love her dearly. And now to commence preparations for my journey. Don’t laugh. Mistress Mary; there is a great deal to be done. When a lady’s wardrobe is a limited one, it is necessary to make the most of it; and as soon as the ‘something to wear’ arrives that is promised me, we shall have to set to work at dressmaking in right earnest.”

Mrs. Darton referred to the note she held in her hand.

“I forgot to look for a postscript. Oh, here it is! Listen to it. ‘I selected two or three things for your little girl when I was doing my own shopping, and ordered the parcel to be sent off to you directly.'”

“And here comes Carrier Cripps with it!” exclaimed Margaret, with a skip and a jump. “How can you go on, Mary, so placidly rolling out paste, whilst I am in a flutter of expectation?”

Away she ran to meet the little covered cart in which an apple-faced old man jogged to and fro the market-town and the station three times in the week; received from Master Cripps the important package that bore the stamp of a West-End linen-draper, and hurried with it to the dining-room, whither her mother and sister followed her.

Too impatient to untie knots, Margaret cut the string, tore open the brown paper, and then eyed the contents askance.

Were these the fairy gifts she had expected to receive?–the pretty, if not actually expensive, gowns that were to enable her to make a good appearance beside her more fortunate cousins?

What she really found was a roll of stout, serviceable calico for under-garments; a dress-length of coarse, strong navy serge, and another of a neat chocolate cambric, and these were all.

Margaret looked from these things to her silent, troubled mother, and back again, tossed them into a heap, and ran away to throw herself on her bed and weep bitter tears of disappointment.

“I don’t understand it at all,” sighed Mrs. Darton, in confidence to her sympathizing elder daughter. “Unless your aunt thought it would be wiser to make her present plain and useful, than to encourage in Margaret a love of dress, which, in our circumstances, it is more prudent to repress.”

“Perhaps Aunt Bessie dresses very simply herself,” Mary suggested.

“A rich widow, who had discarded her crape when she landed, and is evidently not in the habit of denying herself any luxury! No, no, Mary, my sister Bessie does not clothe herself in coarse serge and common print. But what is to be done? your father will be vexed if this invitation is declined; yet to bid Margaret go, arrayed in a garb that would mark her as the poor relation, I cannot.”

However, Mr. Darton, rendered irritable by overwork and the anxiety of making a small income meet the wants of a large family, angrily pooh-poohed the mothers objections.

“Decline so kind an offer simply because our sister’s good sense prompted her to send useful articles instead of finery! You shall do nothing so foolish. Margaret is to go to Brighton, I insist on it, and let her remember that by behaving rudely or ungratefully she may ruin the prospects of her brothers. If anything should happen to me, pray what friend have you in the world besides Mrs. Laurence?”

“If papa insists, of course I must obey,” said Margaret, gulping down a sob. “And for Maurice’s sake I will try to be civil and all that; but I shall take care not to stay longer than I can help. and wear those horrid things I will not. The serge can be cut into blouses for the boys.”

“But, my dear child, you are so poorly provided for such a visit,” sighed Mrs. Darton.

“Do not I know that, and writhe at the thought of displaying my poverty to my rich relatives! Yet if they were not ashamed to insult it, why should I care? Not even to please papa will I put on Aunt Bessie’s ‘something suitable.'”

And to this resolution Margaret adhered. Her loving mother would have sold a small quantity of lace she possessed, and made a few additions to her daughter’s wardrobe with the price obtained for it, but her purpose was discovered and forbidden. It was, therefore, with a very small amount of luggage–the gray cashmere, just made up for Sunday wear, the dark green worn all last winter, and an Indian muslin embroidered for her by Mary at the beginning of the summer that Margaret went away, to be convoyed to Brighton by the highly respectable, middle-aged woman in black silk and furred mantle, who introduced herself to the young lady as Mrs. Laurence’s personal attendant.

Some of Margaret’s resentment melted beneath the warmth of her reception, for Mrs. Laurence, a handsome, energetic, middle-aged woman, came into the hall to meet her niece, and tell her, with a hug and a kiss, that she was almost as pretty as her mother used to be at her age.

Then she was hurried upstairs, to be introduced to Emma and Marion, sallow, sickly looking girls of thirteen and fourteen, whose time seemed to be spent in ceaseless squabbling with the brisk little French governess, who was endeavoring to arouse them from their indolence.

There was not much companionship to be expected from them, and for the first three or four days after her arrival at Brighton, Margaret scarcely saw her aunt, except at lunch. Mrs. Laurence breakfasted in her own room, came to the luncheon-tray with her hands full of papers, over which she pored, or made notes while she ate a few biscuits. The carriage bore her off directly after, and she merely returned in time to dress for a dinner-party, being overwhelmed with invitations from friends and relatives of her late husband.

Perhaps Margaret preferred that it should be so. She felt no desire to improve her acquaintance with the lady who had made her feel so keenly that she was a poor relation; but, at the same time, she was in no hurry to return home. Gossiping neighbors might whisper that she had been sent back in disgrace; and her father, whom press of work often rendered unjust, would be sure to suspect her of having given way to temper, and forgetting that any act of rudeness on her part might mar the future of those she loved.

So Margaret resolved not to do anything hastily. Mademoiselle, when set free from her duties in the schoolroom, was a vivacious, intelligent companion; and the gaiety of Brighton was as delightful as it was new to the young girl, who had never before left the village in one of the midland counties where her parents resided.

To stroll along the King’s Road, watching the ever-changing groups that came and went; to sit on the pier, listening to the choicest music; or to venture as close to the waves as could be done with safety, and thrill with mingled pleasure and awe as they rolled on; these were amusements enough for such a novice, and the first week of Margaret’s stay in Blank Crescent glided away with astonishing rapidity. But one morning Mrs. Laurence came to luncheon without the usual budget of papers. “At last I am free,” she said to Margaret, “and I shall have time to attend to you. Poor child, how I have had to neglect you! I have had a whole family on my hands,” she proceeded to explain; “a family in which my dear husband, the Judge, was very much interested. I found them out as soon as I got here; and, as two of the sons were going on in a very unsatisfactory way, I suggested their all emigrating; so they start to-morrow. It has been a tremendous undertaking to get them all off with a clergyman who has promised to look after them; but it is done, and I can repose on my laurels and transfer my attentions to you.

“Have you been dull, my love? No? You shall go with me to a conversazione this evening. To-morrow I have a reception here, and a couple of engagements for the following night, both of which include you. Remember, you must be dressed by seven. I have promised to look in at the theater on our way, and see the first act of the new opera. Jones shall get you some flowers and do your hair.”

But Margaret proudly declined the lady’s-maid’s assistance. She did not choose to be under the inquisitive eyes of that important personage while she shook out the skirts of her only evening-gown, and fastened at her throat her only ornament, a bunch of crimson rosebuds. Mademoiselle whispered in her ear that she was toute-a-faite charmante, and Mrs. Laurence, regal in black velvet and lace, and diamond stars, nodded approval of the simple girlish costume.

Nor did Margaret feel as much embarrassed by the inquisitive or admiring glances of a throng of strangers as she had feared she should, for the first face on which her eyes rested was a familiar one.

When Mr. Darton’s family was smaller and his children younger he had taken pupils and was wont to congratulate himself that the students who commenced their medical education under his tuition had invariably turned out well.

The cleverest of them all—Gordon Evrington—was now practicing at London-super-Mare, where he was steadily rising to the top of his profession. It was not often that he could spare an evening for amusement, but he felt himself repaid when he recognized in the graceful little creature, whose eyes sparkled with pleasure at sight of him, the pretty child whose willing slave he had been in the long ago.

Dr. Evrington soon found his way to the back of Margaret’s chair; and if she had some trouble in keeping back her tears when he talked affectionately of her mother, and recalled the scenes and spots so dear to the young girl now she was so far away from them, still she was sorry when a call upon his attention compelled him to leave her.

“But I shall see you again,” he said “I have the pleasure of knowing Mrs Laurence. You will make a long stay with her?”

“Oh! no; I hope not! That is, I think not. I came reluctantly; and though my aunt is kind, I—”

Here Margaret stopped, afraid of saying too much; and Gordon Evrington went away mystified; but determined to see more of one who came nearer to his fancy-portrait of what a maiden of seventeen should be, than the more fashionable young ladies angling so openly for the hand of the clever physician.

Mrs. Laurence, who saw them meet, asked a few questions in her brisk fashion; then, in the important business of going with her daughters to the dentist, appeared to forget Margaret till both were dressed for dinner on the following day, and met on the stairs just as the first guests arrived.

A swift scrutiny may have shown her that the embroidered muslin was not as fresh as it had been, but she made no remark; and by the aid of a good-natured housemaid, who ironed it out, it even passed muster once again; but this third time of wearing was at a juvenile party, and Margaret, whose gaiety and good-nature caused her to be much in request, came home with her once immaculate skirts so smudged and so soiled by the sticky caresses of some of her small admirers, that nothing but the labors of the laundress could renovate it.

And Mrs. Laurence had issued cards for a soiree; Dr. Evrington would be amongst the guests, and Margaret, alas! would have to stay up-stairs, to miss the pleasant chat he had warned her, during a chance rencontre in the street, that he was looking forward to.

If her lips were tremulous that day, and she found it difficult to appear in her usual spirits, no one appeared to notice it. Mademoiselle was suffering with tooth-ache, and, in the hurry and bustle of preparing for so large a party, no one appeared to see that Mrs. Laurence’s pretty niece shut herself in her room early in the afternoon, and had not emerged from it when the guests began to arrive.

It was verging on ten o’clock when Margaret’s door was thrown open and Mrs. Laurence came in. The room was dark, but crouching at the window she saw a little figure, and hurried toward it.

“Why, what does this mean, child? Are you ill? No, your skin is not feverish. Have you had bad news from home? But of course not! You would have told me directly. Then why are you sitting here in this melancholy fashion? I insist on knowing.”

“I should like to go home, aunt Bessie.”

“For what reason? Be frank, and tell me. What, silent? I did not know one of your dear mother’s children could be sullen. However, I can not–will not–leave you moping here.” And Mrs. Laurence rang imperatively for lights. “Now, dress yourself, Margaret, and come down with me.”

“It is impossible, madam, for”– the truth was told with proud reluctance “for I have nothing to wear.”

“Nothing! Did you not have the gowns made up that I sent you? Was there not time? You should have told me so as soon as you came. I am surprised that, your mother–”

“Do not blame her!” cried Margaret. “She would have sold her lace to fit me out respectably, but how could I let her?”

“How, indeed, poor soul! But surely with what I sent you, child, you ought to have done very well. Where are those dresses? Of course you brought them with you unmade? No! What is the meaning of this? Were you too proud to accept my gifts, or was your vanity wounded by their simplicity? You do not reply. You are beginning to make me feel ashamed of you! How can you display such temper such ingratitude? I bought for you, as I would for my own daughters, and–”

But now Margaret broke in impetuously:

“And would you have had me appear before your guests to-night in coarse serge, or a calico gown?”

“What are you saying?” exclaimed her aunt, looking positively startled. “I begin to think there has been some mistake. I purchased for you a cream surah and pale blue nun’s veiling to be made up for evening wear, a dinner-dress of biscuit cashmere, and a pretty stripe for walking. Did you not receive them?”

Then Margaret described the contents of the package she had received, and Mrs. Laurence threw herself into a chair, and laughed long and heartily.

“My dear, you must forgive me,” she said, when she could speak, “for it is not I who have been in fault, but the shopman, who has evidently put the wrong addresses on the parcels intrusted to him to dispatch. When I was shopping I bought that serge, etc., for a young girl for whom I had procured a situation. I knew she was flighty and had a bad mother, who would have spent the sum I promised for her outfit in useless finery; so I very prudently, as I thought, laid it out myself. And now I can account for the rapturous tone of the letter of thanks I have received, and the assurance that the lovely things that I have sent Sarah Dobbs will make quite a lady of her. What must her mistress have thought of me? And you too, poor child! Now I can understand why you have shrunk from me and not seemed happy here.”

Margaret spent the rest of that evening in her room, but it was in a very different state of mind. She had no more reservations from Aunt Bessie, and not only stayed willingly at Brighton till Mrs. Laurence moved to Torquay, but accompanied her thither.

Only for a brief term, however. Dr. Evrington has won from her a promise to be his, and ere long he will seek his bride at the house of her father, Aunt Bessie having promised, ‘midst laughter and tears, to give her “something suitable,” both for her dowry and her trousseau.

The Daily Republican [Monongahela PA] 19 June 1889: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  One does so like a happy ending, especially when a young woman has not only been bitterly disappointed in the contents of a parcel, but finds the weight of her brothers’ fortunes resting squarely on her embroidered-muslin-clad shoulders.

The contrast of dress materials for “lady” and “servant” is a sobering one. Still, one fears for the flighty Sarah Dobbs in that pretty stripe for walking….

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

The Grey Plaid: 1870s

“In the farm-house of T—, where I spent my youth, there lived an old woman named Elspeth M’Kinnon, who was accounted famous for the gift of second sight. Now this old crone was the object of my greatest aversion. Not only was she in the highest degree witchlike in her appearance, being dwarfish in stature, bent almost double, small-eyed, wide-mouthed, and having a sharp chin fringed with a beard, but she was always sitting away in odd nooks and corners peering out at one with eyes glaring and cat-like in their expression, and muttering to herself in a language wholly unintelligible to other ears than her own.  “Had I been permitted to have my own way I am afraid old Elspeth would never have been allowed to pass the remainder of her days at T—, but fortunately for her those in authority did not regard her in the same unpleasing light that I did. They considered her to be a poor helpless creature who had a claim on their kindness owing to her having been for many years a servant in my father’s family, and they reverenced her as a seer.

It is, perhaps, needless to tell you that Elspeth prided herself on her reputed gift, which it seems she inherited from her mother; and nothing enraged her so much as when any one doubted, or feigned to doubt, her prophetic powers.

“Boy-like, I loved to tease her upon this point, pretending that I was similarly endowed like herself; that whilst wandering amongst the mountains I had seen singular visions, and I would ask her with a mocking laugh what she thought they portended. Elspeth’s sole answer when thus pressed would be a torrent of reproaches, coupled with warnings of hideous evils which would assuredly overtake me for my wicked unbelief and ridicule of her powers.

“One autumn morning, as I was standing in a barn looking on while some men were grinding corn, a servant girl came in with the intelligence that Elspeth had just told her to stand on one side of the road, as she saw a ‘gathering’ with a corpse on a bier passing by. And that on her saying she did not believe in such things, Elspeth told her that the funeral would soon take place, and that her mother and several others (naming them) would follow the bier. She also described the tartan of the plaid which lay over the corpse.

“Running out of the barn I came upon Elspeth cowering under a hedge, moaning and muttering to herself in her usual strange fashion, when, to make use of her own words, ‘she was under the power of the sight.’ ‘Ha! ha! Elspeth,’ I shouted in derision, ‘and so you have just seen a vision—a bier covered over with a plaid—and what like was the plaid, Elspeth?’

“‘It was red,’ shrieked the beldame, glaring at me with the look of a tigress; ‘red, checkered with green and blue. But grey will be the one just over you, when, in company with another prettier than yourself, you are brought down cold and stiff from the heights of Scuir-na-Gillean!’ [“The hill of the young men.”] ‘Thank you, Elspeth; I am glad you have promised me such a comfortable wrap.’

“This mocking rejoinder drew down upon me a fresh torrent of abuse, which I did not tarry to listen to.

“Those among you who believe in ‘second sight’ will not be surprised when I tell you that Elspeth’s prophecy in regard to the ‘gathering’ that was to be was fulfilled to the very letter, and that within a week after she had given utterance to it. It chanced that a young man residing in a neighbouring cottage was accidentally drowned, and being known to all the residenters in the vicinity of T—, he was followed to the grave by the very people named by Elspeth, and his bier was covered with a plaid checkered as she described.

“Still this strange coincidence by no means cured me of my scepticism. What more likely, I thought, than that when the poor fellow was drowned, his friends, recalling to mind Elspeth’s prophecy, should contrive to aid its fulfilment by appointing these persons she named to follow the bier! And every cottage containing one or more plaids it would be easy to procure one similar in pattern to that described by Elspeth.

“Perfectly satisfied in my own mind that such was a correct explanation of the affair, I only laughed at the more than reverential awe with which Elspeth was now regarded by those credulous enough to place faith in her predictions.

“Shortly after this I went south for a few weeks. On my return I was accompanied by a young Englishman named Vernon, who was desirous of learning something of sheep farming under my father’s instructions. A stranger to mountain scenery, the weird grandeur of the Coolins so delighted him that he was never weary of gazing on their rugged summits when dimly seen through the driving clouds or rose-coloured mists of evening.

“Of a bold adventurous disposition, young Vernon frequently expressed the wish that together we should ascend their giddy heights ere a snowstorm rendered such a feat impracticable. Equally desirous myself of achieving such an undertaking which, as you are well aware, is accounted rather a hazardous one from the frequent avalanches of gigantic stones which crash in every direction, thereby imperilling life and limb, one fine October morning we started on our expedition, which, as agreed upon between us, was carried out sub rosa. We had a mile of hard climbing to encounter ere we reached the mountains; and to us unskilled mountaineers this was by far the most fatiguing part of the undertaking. Our breath came short and thick, and so great was the oppression on our chests that we felt as though we must succumb. Gradually, however, this unpleasant feeling wore off, and by the time we arrived at the foot of the Coolins it had entirely disappeared.

“‘Now for the tug of war,’ said Vernon at sight of the grim barren-looking mountains towering up from our very feet, their wild and savage appearance rendered still more perceptible at our near approach. Nothing daunted, however, onwards we went, and now it was climbing in good earnest. Our progress might not unfrequently be described as that of one step forward and two backward: the loose shingle yielding beneath our feet occasioned this rather unsatisfactory mode of progression. The higher we ascended the greater the difficulties we had to encounter; and in many instances the peril became extreme when the narrow pathway by which we advanced led us to the brink of some giddy precipice where one false step would have precipitated us down into an unfathomable abyss.

“When near the top of the mountain I observed a solitary peak rising up behind the others, and evidently a good deal higher than those surrounding it. Pointing it out to Vernon, I said, ‘Once on that pinnacle we have achieved something to be proud of.’ He smiled assent, and we pushed onward, determined to do or die. After two hours and a half’s incessant clambering we stood upon the summit, panting and breathless, yet esteeming ourselves amply rewarded for our arduous ascent. The mighty Coolins, naked, lofty, and precipitous, surrounded on all sides this strange-looking peak, which we found to our great disappointment unscalable. Taglioni herself would have hesitated to execute a pas seul on the giddy pinnacle, whose point seemed to us fine as that of a needle, It towered up from the centre of the Coolins, solitary in its height and obelisk-like appearance, whilst its sides were polished as those of marble. The surrounding scenery was sublime. Lochs and mountains in endless variety met our gaze. Wherever we turned there was something to admire or wonder at in the freaks of nature.

“Whilst intensely enjoying the beauties surrounding us, imagine our horror at beholding a dense mass of cloud advancing towards us with rapid strides. There was something terrific in its appearance as it sped over the sea, enveloping the sun in its dusky folds, which, now of a fierce lurid red, seemed like an incensed magician glaring at us in anger for having invaded his dominions. In an instant, as it seemed, everything was hidden from view. Mountains, loch, glens, all had disappeared, and we were thoroughly wet, as though we had been submerged in one of the lochs we were so recently admiring.

“The cold on the top of the mountain had now become so intense that our faces were quite excoriated, and there being no further inducement for us to remain, we prepared to descend. Some large flakes of snow were now in the air. We quickened our steps in alarm, for one of us at least was but too familiar with the horrors of a Highland snow-storm.

“Not far from the summit we met two shepherds who had come up in quest of their fleecy charge, many of which lay dead around. In our eagerness to accomplish the descent in safety, we only tarried to make some inquiries respecting the path by which to descend, and to ask the name of the moun­tain on which we stood. At mention of Scuir-na-Gillean I could not restrain a cry of surprise. Old Elspeth’s prophecy flashed across my mind, and now it seemed about to be accomplished. Was I not on the heights of Scuir-na-Gillean, in company with a friend, and surrounded on all sides with indications of a coming snow-storm, which, unless we were enabled to accomplish the descent in less than half the time it took to ascend, might yet prove our winding-sheet!

“Through the glimmer of the fast-darkening day I seemed to see old Elspeth’s skinny hand pointed at me in scorn, and to hear her mocking laugh rise and mingle with the storm now moaning at a distance amongst the wild glens and rocks. As the concluding words of her prediction rose to my recollection, I grasped Vernon by the wrist with a vice-like grasp and plunged madly down the mountain.

***

“Some three or four hours afterwards we were discovered by other shepherds lying underneath the shelter of a huge beetling crag, whither we had crept for safety, not dead, but with the life in us frozen. And the shepherds fold us tenderly in their plaids and bear us in safety to our home, for their feet are familiar with the windings of each giddy path, and their dogs, in their wondrous instinct, are guides that err not.

“Ever after that memorable day I permitted old Elspeth to predict as many deaths and marriages as she pleased without further molestation from me—for had not her prophecy in respect to myself been literally fulfilled?

“Grey was the colour of the plaid which covered me when, in company with another prettier than myself, I was brought down cold and stiff from the heights of Scuir-na-Gillean.”

The Psychological Review, August, 1882: pp. 118-122

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  To be Relentlessly Informative, the mountain is Sgùrr nan Gillean in the Cuillin range on the Isle of Skye. The reality of Second Sight is a fact of life for many on the Isle and throughout Scotland and, like the unnamed young idiot of the tale above, one defies it at one’s peril. He was singularly fortunate in the ambiguity of Elspeth’s Second Sight prophecy and one hopes that he was grovellingly courteous to that lady afterwards. But “I permitted old Elspeth” does not suggest that he took any lesson whatever from his near-death experience.

The “Phantom Funeral” is a particularly common Sight. This footnote to the story gives details:

That invisible funerals—that is, invisible to all save those gifted with the “second sight”—always precede real ones, is a favourite belief with the lower class of Highlanders in the islands of Tiree, Mull, and Skye. The writer of this paper was once solemnly assured by an inhabitant of Mull that a friend of hers was repeatedly knocked down one evening while coming along a road then occupied by a train of spiritual mourners.

That funereal-minded person over at Haunted Ohio has written several posts that tell of phantom funerals: Phantom Funerals and Tokens of Death. A most unsettling and unpleasant thing to meet in the road…

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

$35,000 a Year to Dress a “Deb”: 1924

 

$35,000 a Year to Dress a “Deb”!

Dressmakers to the “400” Tell How the Modern Society Girl Wears Annually 30 Evening Gowns, 250 Pairs of Stockings, 25 Pairs of Shoes, 30 Hats, 2 Dozen Negligees, 1 Dozen Evening Wraps, and a $25,000 Coat!

When one of New York’s smartest dressmakers announced the other day that nobody could dress on less than $35,000 in a year, a lot of people clutched their pocketbook with one hand and held up the other hand in horror.

But not the debutante. Not, either, the debutante’s mother in the his year of grace 1924. Nor, indeed, the debutante’s father. They knew that the dressmaker’s estimate was conservative. “I only hope my daughter will cut her wardrobe expenses down to $35,000!” was the sincere groan of many a plutocratic parent.

Of course when the dressmaker said nobody could dress on less than $35,000 a year, she referred to anybody feminine who was “anybody” in New York City. Even in Manhattan there are girls who spend less than $500 a year for clothes. But they are not the girls who get their names into the society column.

To the innocent bystander, however, whose name never gets near the society column than the death notices, advertisements and “marriage licenses issued today,” that $35,000 remark was a smash between the eyes. “How,” said the innocent bystander, fingering his last $1 bill, “can any woman not only not get along on less than $35,000 for clothes and incidentals alone—but how, on clothes and incidentals alone, can she spend so much?”

The easiest answer is: “Easily.” But after all, that doesn’t tell the innocent bystander much about what it’s all for, so this innocent bystander galumphed up to the source of the hair-raising remark and asked how come, with specifications, explanations and itemized particulars.

Fay Lewisohn

Miss Fay Lewisohn

She’s a surprisingly young and girlish person, this Fay Lewisohn who made the statement which has ever since been causing squawk of dismay. Perhaps it is worth noting that the squawks come from people—like oneself, for example—who haven’t anything like $35,000 to spend on anything, let alone on clothes. Her establishment is in the most fashionable-dressmaker section of West Fifty-seventh street, which as the initiate know is at present the ultra fashionable district for the modistes whose clientele is truly exclusive.

“How can a woman spend $35,000 a year on dress?” is the question directed at the slim, attractive young woman who announces herself as proprietor of the place.

The slim, attractive young woman shrugged. “How can she help it?” is her answer.

“Well, but after all—”

The modiste smiled. “Oh, I’m talking about the woman of wealth and social position. Naturally, every one who comes to my shop for an occasional gown doesn’t spend that much on clothes; perhaps not in a lifetime. I myself don’t spend that much on clothes in a year.

“But perhaps you don’t realize that there are dozens of women in New York today to whom $35,000 as an annual outlay for dress, cosmetics and so on, is not an extravagance. I know one woman who has a yearly contract with a modiste for $50,000 worth of clothes. There are society women who easily spend that much. Just as there are people who spend $50 a month for a house and others who pay $15,000 a year for an apartment. The thing is relative, you know.”

The modiste, it seemed, got a fair profit and no more. “It is possible that by some lucky chance a woman might find a cheap dressmaker who would turn her out, as well as one whose prices were higher. That is an unlikely chance; but it might happen. However, what the society woman wants is a quiet, attractive place in which to inspect gowns. She wants to see those gowns displayed by refined, high-class models. Naturally, both these requisites mean high rent and good salaries.”

Your murmur about the overhead expense brought an emphatic nod.

“Moreover, the very materials in the clothes themselves are expensive even before the scissors and needle touch the goods. Brocades at, say, around $100 a yard, send the price of a gown up, rather.”

Rather!

“There is an East Indian, for example, who brings me marvelously embroidered silks straight from India. He drapes them around the models and they really need, oftentimes, very little cutting or sewing. But the materials themselves are almost museum pieces. Some are antiques. And, of course, they are very valuable.

“Another big item in sending up the price of a frock is the actual labor upon it. Labor I these days and in this city, especially skilled needlework, is high. On a first-class gown which has many yards of an intricately beaded pattern, each bead must be sewn on with care so that it won’t pull off. These patterns often are works of art and it requires almost artists to bead them. Do you know that the beading on one gown, when properly done, may take several weeks?”

These were matters worthy of consideration. But how many of these gowns would a sure-enough social leader need in the course of a year? And how much would such a gown cost?

It depended, naturally, on the taste of the patron and the amount of beading.

“A gown of this type, beautifully done, might run into many hundreds of dollars. It might be five hundred dollars, six hundred—the material itself would, of course, be a determining factor. I am speaking, by the way, of a gown on which the modiste would make a legitimate profit; not of a gown for which the modiste would charge every dollar she thought she could extort.

“A debutante may easily spend $35,000 a year for clothes and really get her money’s worth. Without being cheated by the modiste.”

You began to see how this was so.

“Now, for instance,” the modiste continued, “a girl who moves in what is known as high society needs about thirty evening gowns. She doesn’t plan to wear any costume more than two or three times; some of them only once. It is not too much to say that thirty evening gowns would cost her $9000.

“She would require 250 pairs of stockings. These would cost on a average, perhaps $9 a pair; an item of $2250 for hosiery alone. Of course, some stockings would cost much more than $9 a pair.”

As a matter of fact, a shop in the vicinity of Fifth avenue and Forty-second street has had on display within the year a pair of stockings priced at $500. Not $500 each, you understand; but $500 for the pair, or $250 each. They were perfectly simple black silk hose, with a large medallion of lace on the front.

The same shop had another pair of quite good-looking silk and lace stockings for $250.

But the modiste was going on with her itemized bill of wardrobe expenses. Shoes, she agreed, could cost anything you want to spend on them, but $2000 wasn’t too much for some women. A lady who wanted her feet to look really chic would require, at the least twenty-five pairs of shoes, and this was a low estimate.

Hats? Of course, you could get a good little hat for $35. Or you could get a stunning little thing for $100. Anyway, the lady would need at least thirty hats and she could easily spend from $1200 to $2100 before she got out of the millinery department.

By this time you begin to see that milady has run up quite a sizable bill. But the end is by no means yet. How about lingerie? How about lounging robes for the boudoir? How about the perfumes and powders, the creams and other cosmetics with which the boudoir dressing table is stacked?

Of course, a negligee is whatever you please. It is, so to speak, an elastic garment. It may be a cotton wrapper or a thing exquisite as sunshine on the sea. The negligee of the social leader is of this latter type. And you’d be surprised at how expensive it is to put the sunshine on the sea into figured silk and chiffon.

“A dozen negligees are not too many” –it is the voice of authority which speaks; “many women have many more than a dozen. They might easily cost a little more than $200 apiece, or $2500 for the dozen.

“As for lingerie—I have just finished a set of lingerie, for a bride, which is valued at $10,000. I have made other sets for $15,000; that is to say, a dozen of each garment. The set which I have just finished was of hand-made filet lace and Italian silk of special quality. The wedding gown, priced at $600, was intricately beaded with crystal. One could get a really lovely wedding gown, as a matter of fact for around $300. But, of course, this is without the veil. The veil may cost as much as one is willing to pay—

“It may be a few almost priceless yards of antique lace, made in some convent of the Middle Ages.

“The more usual lingerie, of finest linen or silks and exquisite laces, would cost about $3600 for two dozen sets.

 

“A dozen evening wraps would be part of the society woman’s wardrobe. It is difficult to put a price on them. They might cost several hundred dollars each, depending on what fur was used for the collars and other decorations.

“There are such things as fans, too, which vary tremendously in price. These would mount at least into the hundreds. Corsets, too, are expensive when well made and made to order. The materials are costly, also. Seventy dollars is the price of one corset which makes no pretense to embroidery or other ornamentation. The price is for the best quality of brocade and of silk elastic and for the model itself.

“You understand, further that a social leader could not possibly buy her furs within that $35,000 which I have allowed her for a wardrobe. Furs would have to be extra. For a handsome coat $15,000 is not an unusual price and $25,00 would more likely be the figure.

“This leaves what are known as incidentals. They include hairdressing and all that goes with this art; beauty treatments, with cosmetics, perfumes at—say–$30 an ounce—and things of the sort. Cigarettes, too, may be put with the incidentals. Many society women smoke the brands that come in fifteen or twenty cent packages, but you may, if you wish, have the sort that has a monogram, a special blend of tobacco and a little dab of cotton inside the cork tip to absorb the nicotine and keep it from touching the lips. Without the monogram these can be obtained for around eleven cents each.

“No, not each packet. Each cigarette.

“For incidentals we may safety estimate that a society woman spends $5000 yearly.”

The modiste drew a long breath. So did you.

“Well, you see,” she said.

You did, indeed.

New Britain [CT] Herald 7 October 1924: p. 16

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil, who has previously shared information on the account-books of the very rich (The Cost of a Fine Lady, What Gilded Youth Spends on Its Wardrobe, Where that $10,000 a Year Dress Allowance Goes, and The Cost of a Curtsey), wonders if these articles are a form of what she has heard called “humble-bragging,” or if they are meant to be inspiration for the ten-shillings-a-week shop-girl to set her sights on an elderly peer or millionaire?

Although she inexplicably omits essentials such as hand-bags, vanity cases, and jewels, Miss Lewisohn knew a thing or two about the sartorial needs of the society woman. She was the heiress to the Randolph Guggenheim millions. She was often in the news: Her engagement to one William Burton (of a Park Avenue address) was announced 23 February 1919; the engagement was reported as broken on 2 April, 1919, with her mother saying that the couple was “Too young to know their own hearts.” In 1921 she had to issue a statement denying that she was marrying a Russian prince; while in 1922, she announced the opening of her dressmaking establishment, in partnership with Mrs. Basil Soldatenkov, wife of the former Russian envoy under the Czar. She also married Jack Rothstone, brother of Broadway gambler Arnold Rothstein in 1928; divorcing him in 1934.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

The Lace-Smuggler’s Narrative: 1858

A SMUGGLER’S NARRATIVE.

“We shall be, my dear madam,” said I to a fellow passenger in the Dieppe boat, taking out my watch, but keeping my eye steadily upon her, “we shall be in less than ten minutes at the custom house.” A spasm—a flicker from the guilt within—glanced over her countenance.

“You look very good-natured, sir,” stammered she.

I bowed, and looked considerably more so, in order to invite her confidence.

“If I was to tell you a secret, which I find is too much to keep to myself, oh, would you keep it inviolable?”

“I know it, my dear madam—I know it already,” said I, smiling; it is lace, is it not?”

She uttered a little shriek, and, yes, she had got it there among the crinoline. She thought it had been sticking out, you see, unknown to her.

“Oh, sir,” cried she, “it is only ten pounds’ worth; please to forgive me, and I’ll never do it again. As it is I think I shall expire.”

“My dear madam,” replied I, sternly but kindly, “here is the pier, and the officer has fixed his eye upon us. I must do my duty.” I rushed up the ladder like a lamplighter; I pointed that woman out to a legitimate authority; I accompanied her upon her way, in custody, to the searching house. I did not see her searched, but I saw what was found upon her, and I saw her fined and dismissed with ignominy. Then, having generously given up my emoluments as informer to the subordinate officials, I hurried off in search of the betrayed woman to her hotel.

I gave her lace twice the value of that she had lost. I paid her fine, and then I explained. “You, madam, had ten pounds’ worth of smuggled goods about your person; I had nearly 50 times that amount. I turned informer, madam, let me convince you, for the sake of us both. You have too expressive a countenance, believe me, and the officer would have found you out at all events, even as I did myself. Are you satisfied, my dear madam? If you still feel aggrieved or injured by me in any manner, pray take more lace; here is lots of it.”

We parted the best of friends.

Liverpool [Merseyside, England] Mercury 28 September 1858: p. 3

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  What a very thoughtful gentleman-smuggler!  Too many in this world think only of themselves. The narrator restores our faith in humanity!

The smuggling of lace and other luxury goods was not only a highly-lucrative profession, it was something of a sport for young ladies, as we have seen in a previous post where the unrepentant culprits told their father, “But every woman on the ship is smuggling, and it is such fun.’.

Some smugglers felt that ladies had a better chance of evading detection, such as the youth who impersonated a widow, complete with a sham infant built on a bottle of dutiable brandy and stuffed with laces.

And fashionable garments provided many useful hiding places. Crinoline, for example:

The Dutch custom-house officers at Rosendael, a few days, seized a quantity of lace to the value of 1200 florins, which a lady coming by the railway from Antwerp had concealed under her crinoline. The anxiety depicted on her countenance is said to have betrayed her.

Liverpool [Merseyside England] Mercury 30 March 1858: p. 7

or the bustle:

A novel method of smuggling has been devised. A woman was discovered in Florida, coming into the United States with a large tin bustle filled with fine Cuban rum.

Lawrence [KS] Daily Journal 21 December 1886: p. 3

This lady’s maid must have been quite a strapping young woman to carry this contraband:

The Customers-officers at Haumont (Nord) last week arrested a lady’s maid who was attempting to cross the frontier with no less than twenty-nine kilogs. [63.9 lbs!] of Belgian tobacco concealed in her crinoline.

The Exeter [Devon England] Flying Post 23 September 1863: p. 6

This lady, who cleverly took advantage of the normal cycles of life to bypass the customs officers, did not know when to stop:

A very common Method of Smuggling practised by the Fair Sex, is by assuming the Appearance of far advanced Pregnancy; although the Bantling proves generally to be Silks and Laces. A Lady well known in the Circles of Fashion, practised this Trick with great Success for many Years, until being big with Child five Times in one Year, the Custom-House Officers began to be staggered by such prolific Powers, and kindly lent a Hand to deliver her of her Burthen.

The Derby [England] Mercury 15 July 1784: p. 1

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

An Undine with a Soul: 1892

green and pink gown

Green and pink gown by the House of Worth, 1897, Chertsey Museum

AN UNDINE WITH A SOUL.
How a Clever New York Maiden Saved Her Social Fortunes.

Special Correspondence Sunday Post-Dispatch.

New York. Gift making is over and all the world is duly thankful, a large part of it that the holiday pother is well ended, here and there an individual for what has not been received. This is notably the case with a young woman much addicted to artistic yearning and full of a fine feeling for color. Though the best circles here receive her with open arms, it is wholly because of her personal charm, backed with substantial expectations. Her family is good enough, not distinguished, and only comfortably endowed with this world’s goods. Her father claims a cross of Knickerbocker blood. Her mother comes of thrifty trader-folk, clean and honest, but wholly unaesthetic. There is a childless rich aunt, the mother’s sister, widow of a retired grocer, for whose garmenting gorgeous is a poor pale word. Fair, fat and fifty; she revels in big hats all over sky blue feathers, in velvet gowns of green and scarlet aflaunt with white lace; in brocades that would do admirably as wall tapestries; in tea-gowns calculated to make a self-respecting rainbow go out of business; in bracelets and lockets and chatelaines, distinctly audible as far as eye can reach. In fact the good lady lives to be clothed. Style is her fetish, and she offers to it a perpetual oblation of good, hard cash, expended for “all the latest things.”

Notwithstanding she shows the family thrift otherwise. The beauty, as her namesake and prospective heiress, has a reasonable claim upon her generosity. It is one, though, that the young woman most willingly waives. All her life particularly at Christmas times she has been endowed with things that her aunt bought, wore and laid aside the season before, and woe to the recipient if she dares to leave them unworn. Since she came out. two winters back, they have been the nightmare of her existence. Between tears and laughter she told me of her struggles with one particularly flamboyant gown, a grass-green silk all betagged and befrilled with vulgarly deep pink, and aglitter with crystal passementeries in the bargain. It was as rich and costly as it was ugly and to the donor’s mind exactly the thing the girl needed to wear at a swell dinner party with dancing after it, two weeks in prospect. The victim of it thought otherwise. The invitation was the first that had come to her from the really swagger set. If she did not do credit to it it would be also the last. To go in that impossible gown was to foredoom herself to social failure. What could she be but a dumb fright under the oppression of that rainbow horror? Yet not to wear it might cost her eventually a solid quarter million. It was a case of her face or her fortune, and she did not care to sacrifice either. There was nothing for it but diplomacy. Taking her courage in both hands, she stripped off every vestige of the pink, and with it ornamented a loose white cashmere house-robe, where the effect was not half so bad. This she sent to her aunt as a birthday gift, intimating that only the elder lady’s magnificent complexion could bear such rich color. Then the green remnant was veiled and swathed in clouds of pink and white tulle, layer upon layer, with crystal drops here and there and trails of water grass and lilies on the corsage and about the waist. Thus gowned, with an emerald pendant on her bare white throat, green slippers, green stockings, a white and green fan, the young woman was voted an Undine with a soul and her social success assured. But it was a narrow escape–a harrowing experience–one, too, that she feared was to be indefinitely repeated. There were three brocades in her aunt’s wardrobe that it seemed certain the Christmas just past would precipitate on her devoted head. A line in a fashion letter saved her. It read, ‘”Old brocades are more stylish than new, now that the texture is again in fashion.” By consequence, at the eleventh hour the aunt bought for her niece a bonbonniere as big as your two hands, all over gilt and flowers, and sent for her modiste to see what were the possibilities of the gowns she could not bring herself to part with.

blue and gold velvet dress 1895

1895 velvet and brocade gown. ttps://artsandculture.google.com/asset/dress/cQEsM1SnLWPe2g

So here is a new use for the fashion letter. Certainly womankind should be grateful to it for it brings much of sweetness and light into the chaos of feminine costume. The sentence quoted is frozen fact. The happiest, she is the one who had a grand aunt or mother considerate enough to leave her a chest full or even one gown of the rich old-fashioned taffeta brocade. One that I saw resurrected the other day was as freshly beautiful as though it had not come out of Paris 120 years ago. The ground was a rich chocolate brown satin brocaded with a cluster of cherries and their leaves in natural tints, alternating with poppy clusters in shaded red and yellow. It was made with a very long waist pointed and opening quite to the bottom over a stomacher of yellow lace. The same yellow lace made a tucker in the low square neck and triple ruffles for the elbow sleeves. The skirt opened in front and was looped away from a petticoat of plain brown satin short enough to show the high heeled red shoes with big bows and silver buckles and even a tiny bit of the red clocked stockings. Behind the brocade swept out into a train full three yards long, lined throughout with yellow brown paduasoy. Its first wearer was a colonial dame of renown—a vice regal lady whose stately beauty is the most cherished tradition of her descendants. This costume, which figured at more than one historic ball, has been kept intact even to fan and gloves, which by the way are as long as the longest of our period. It was brought to light with some faint idea of remodeling it into a ball-gown for a great-great granddaughter. In the end it was decided to leave it alone. There are hints, though, of a colonial costume ball for the benefit of the Mary Washington Monument association. If they take form and substance it is safe to say the brown brocade will appear and ruffle with the best.

 

 

Failing old brocade you may buy new ones twice as beautiful in all the delicate evening shades—blues like a dream of heaven or the shimmering summer sea, pale tea-rose pinks, shot stuff, opalescent as the tints of dawn or as full of changing hues as a pigeon’s purple neck; cream amber, Indian red, jonquil yellow, pearl, dead white, black, gray, crimson, all in the most lustrous weaves, with a pattern of lace festoons or true love knots, or stars or spots or crescents in self-tones running all over them. Other sorts have delicate flowers or bouquets colored to the life; still others sheaves of wheat in gold or silver, or suns or moons or intricate arabesque tracery in the same precious metals. In making up the brocade forms either a coat bodice in front with a velvet train, or else a trained skirt with bodice of fine cloth, or may be a court train and sleeves to a princess gown the color of its ground.

The Courier-Journal [Louisville KY] 27 December 1891: p. 14

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  We must applaud the very diplomatic young woman, even if she is much addicted to artistic yearning.  Few, if any of us, could so deftly steer between the Scylla of social ruin and the Charybdis of an aunt having a quarter million in her gift.  The Undine gown sounds enchanting. And the pink-trimmed cashmere house-robe and its attendant compliment to the aunt’s complexion was a sheer stroke of genius.

The House of Worth was noted for its exquisite brocades, often woven à la disposition or with metallic threads. The descriptions above could have come from a vendeuse tempting the Undine’s aunt at Maison Worth.

 

As a side-light, Mrs Daffodil was full of anxiety over the fate of the yellow-brown “paduasoy,” for fear that it had been remodeled, i.e. vandalised, into a ball gown for some heedless debutante. It was with a feeling of profound relief that she heard that it was left alone, although there was still the threat of the colonial costume ball. We have previously read of the historic costumes worn on such occasions in An Imposter at the Concord Ball. It is a dress-historian’s worst nightmare.

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.