Monday, July 30, 2012

House of Mirth's Real Characters

Having just finished Edith Wharton's House of Mirth and in full Newport Dance Week panic mode, I am on a kick for Wharton's world of the New York social elite.  Dancing in the ballrooms of Newport definitely gives you an appreciation for Lily Bart's struggle to stay on the season's invitation list.  The social elite of the late 19th century have become the stuff of legend--have you ever heard the term "keeping up with the Joneses"?  Well, that phrase has been attributed to Mary and Rebecca Jones (incidentally, relations of Wharton) who scandalized mid-century New Yorkers by building their lavish apartments uptown, starting a trend for living in the 50s which became standard by the time new socialites started living around central park.
The fashionable "apartment" of John Jacob Astor an family (including Caroline Astor)
at 65th and 5th, facing central park
Another phrase you may know is "the 400," referring to the 400 families considered the 'inner circle' of New York society.  The list considered to be the original 400 was published in the New York Times by Ward McAllister (satirized as "Mc-A-List-er") circa 1892.  This was also supposed to be the invitation list to Caroline Astor's annual ball.  Mrs. William Backhouse Astor, Jr., later known as "the" Mrs. Astor, was considered the 'queen' of Manhattan society, and her famed annual ball was quite the event.  Until the mid 1890s the William Astors lived at 350 5th Avenue (torn down to become the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel) and the ballroom could 'only' accommodate 400 guests--the rumored origins of the 400 list.  Whether or not this is true is still under debate, but it fits well with the publications put forth by McAllister.

350 5th Avenue, home of Caroline Astor (foreground), 1893
Wharton captures the glamour and strife of living within the upper echelons of New York society quite well, and it's part of what makes her books so entertaining.  It's also what earned her a good amount of criticism from her acquaintances--especially surrounding House of Mirth.  After Newport, I guess my next stop will have to The Mount, Wharton's own estate...

The Mount, Wharton's estate in Lenox, MA

Friday, July 27, 2012

Packing, Progress...Panicking!

Sorry, I couldn't resist the alliteration!

I am seriously panicking though.  This year Newport Dance Week includes four balls (1920s/Gatsby, 1860s, Ragtime, 1890s), one early-twentieth century "silent film evening," two major day events (seaside stroll, formal tea), and I also need nine days' worth of normal clothes for classes and travel.

I might die.

In addition to all of the sewing I am frightfully behind on (which is all of it, incidentally), I still need to pack and make sure that I have all my dance shoes, gloves, hats, and sparkly bits for each day as well.  In case you were wondering, packing tiaras is hard.  They do not actually conform to boxes but must be packed carefully lest they break.

Seriously, I am going to explode.

But the panic has been urging me to work when I would normally be sleeping, and I have made progress!  Here are a couple of photos (taken via Instagram, so apologies for the quality) of how my 1920s and Ragtime dresses are coming along:

my "cherry blossom" ragtime dress

gold with sequin fringe 1920s dress, dubbed the "gladiator" by my family

fringe close-up
The exciting thing is that most of the dresses I will be wearing are new, so I will have a lot to post about when I get back!  In the meantime, I have a couple of Newport history-related posts scheduled for next week, so hopefully they will keep you entertained while I am away!

Also, I take comfort in the fact that this whole packing nonsense is nothing new.  In fact, here is a charming description of Newport trunks from Belle Brittan, writing in 1856:

"I forgot to mention the sensation produced by the arrival this morning of about thirty trunks belonging to a handsome New-York widow--one of the trunks being the size of an Irish shanty.  I am so glad, as Pa scolded a little about the trunk I bought to pack my hoops in; and called it 'Noah's Ark.'  But after seeing this huge dry goods warehouse in the hall today, he promised to laugh at mine no more." (July 16, 1856; p161)

You can read more about Belle's travels and her season in Newport in Belle Brittan on a Tour: at Newport, and Here and There.  The book is a series of fictional letters detailing the travel of Belle Brittan, originally published as a serial in The Daily Mirror and written by co-founder Hiram Fuller. They can be read in full for free on Google Books.  Her descriptions are absolutely charming, and I recommend it!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Preparing for "the Season"

Newport Vintage Dance Week is a crazy whirlwind of classes, teas, costumes, sparkle, and lovely balls.  Naturally, I'm totally freaking out about getting everything sewn and packed in time! Ah!

But I feel bad neglecting you all, so here is a pretty hilarious episode of one of the SciFi channel ghost hunter shows where they investigate the Astor's Beechwood Mansion.  Unfortunately, this mansion (one of my favorite ballrooms ever!) is no longer open to the public, but it was super cool.  Here you can see it and learn about how haunted it is!

I have to warn you, though...having spoken to members of the staff, none of them bought the stories featured here--and they lived in the house.  I say this as someone who does fully believe in ghosts, though, so make up your own minds!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Dress Worthy of Wharton

Literature has been a heavy influence on my sewing this summer, and my 1890s author of choice is Edith Wharton.  To be fair, Age of Innocence and House of Mirth both take place decades before (although written in the 20th century), but my association between Newport and the '90s means that in my head that is when they are set.
I need a new 1890s ballgown this summer (I am really starting to panic about my sewing), and while I certainly do not have the time to embroider as beautifully or as extensively as this original Worth gown, I am totally in love with the rhinestone butterflies.  Rhinestones I can do--I have, in fact, been known to attach them while in traffic on the way to an event--so the plan is to adapt the butterflies into a more finish-able format.  But really, I am also in love with the lace and the sleeves and the shape...the '90s say elegance beautifully, especially when done by Worth.

Worth butterfly gown, 1898 (Met Collection)

While reading Age of Innocence (for which, by the way, Wharton was the first female to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize) I was delighted by this quote about the etiquette of Worth dresses, which I thought I would share.

"In my was considered vulgar to dress in the newest fashions; and Amy Sillerton has always told me that in Boston the rule was to put away one'e Paris dresses for two years.  Old Mrs. Baxter Pennilow, who did everything handsomely, used to import twelve a year, two velvet, two satin, two silk, and the other six of poplin and the finest cashmere.  It was a standing order, and as she was ill for the two years before she died they found forty-eight Worth dresses that had never been taken out of tissue paper; and when the girls left off their mourning they were able to wear the first lot at the Symphony concerts without looking in advance of the fashion.'
'Ah, well, Boston is more conservative than New York; but I always think it's a safe rule for a lady to lay aside her French dresses for one season,' Mrs. Archer conceded." (p260)

Isn't that hilariously fabulous?  So really, all of Newport was actually a year or two behind the I shouldn't really wear this dress until I attend a 1900 ball.  That's alright though, I think I fall into the 'vulgar young girls' being criticized here anyways--so I shall just be forward, and shiny!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Quick Skirt

I am long overdue to show you pictures from my early 1900s skirt, which I threw together from machine-washable fabric the day or two before the centennial event at Orchard House in June.  I wore it again for a "teddy bear picnic" performance recently as well, and it's a great easy piece for when I know I'm probably going to end up on the ground at some point.

I drafted the pattern off of my Truly Victorian 1890s skirt pattern, combining the front and side pieces on one side to create an a-symmetrical 'wrap' look, which was popular during the ragtime era, and cut a lot of the volume from the back.  The 'wrapped' side is also accented with green piping and a row of buttons--both accents often seen in fashion plates of the period.
The hat is far too floppy, and hopefully I will be making a new one soon.  But all things considered, I'm happy with the skirt.  It was a rushed project and the fabric is hot and doesn't breath well, but it's a good down-and-dirty skirt to have on hand.

a close-up of the fabric and hat ribbon

after the performance at the Salem Anthaneum

I am really bad at posing on my own...I need a production team. oof.

back view

despite its faults, I really do love that bow!
with CVD at the Anthaneum
You can see more photos (including my outfit in action) at the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers' Facebook page.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

All That Glitters

I have so much sewing I should be doing right now, and I fully plan to in a bit, but for now I am watching Cupcake Wars and setting some things up for you...first of which are some inspiration images for the dress I am privately referring to as the "kill myself for glitter" dress.  It is intended for the Gatsby Ball at Newport Vintage Dance Week, which I will be attending in a few weeks.  I am thrilled but also totally panicking about all the sewing I have to do before then!

The ball will be held at Rosecliff, the mansion in Newport where the 1974 Gatsby movie was filmed.

the Rosecliff ballroom
Aside from the movie connection, though, what inspiration is there for a 1920s event at a 1898 mansion?  It turns out, as always for the 'jazz age,' that Fitzgerald has the answer...

In his 1932 collection The Crack-Up Fitzgerald writes:

"the restlessness of New York in 1927 approached hysteria.  The parties were bigger--those of Conde Nast, for example, rivaled in their way the fabled balls of the nineties" (My Lost City, p27)

Well, one of my favorite things about the '20s is the sparkle...and what better place to glitter than charleston-ing in a ballroom fabulous enough for Fitzgerald to write about?  So even though I might kill myself in the process, I will drip sequins.  Here are some of my favorite inspirations.  You can check these out in detail in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

hand-laid sequins, 1925

beaded dance dress (back), 1925 from Augusta Auctions

mixed bugle beads and sequins, 1925

Alla Nazimova in sequined robe, 1921

cream velvet with beads, Augusta


detail from embroidered tulle and sequin overdress, 1926 

be-pearled and -rhinestoned flapper
Worth with metallic embroidery and lame lining, 1925
And my absolute favorite...sequin fringe!

detail of fringe and fabric below
dancer Dorothy Sebastian in similarly sparkly fringe
I think the picture-taking at this ball is going to be especially fun if all goes according to plan.