Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘19th Century fashion’

eugenie
As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Mary Todd Lincoln slavishly followed the fashion lead of the Empress Eugénie, Empress Consort of France (1853-1871), the wife of Napoléon III, Emperor of the French. The empress’ style was reported in detail by the Vogue magazine of the day, Godey’s Lady’s Book. In 1860, age 32, the Empress Eugénie was considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe. At a ball, she outshone all other women. It was said that every man was in love with her. Her friend, the Princess de Metternich recalled that, on one occasion, the empress was

“attired in a white gown spangled with silver and dressed with her most beautiful diamonds. She had carelessly thrown over her shoulders a sort of burnous of white embroidered with gold, and the murmurs of admiration followed her like a trail of lighted gunpowder.”

In 1862, the Empress Eugénie set the fashion world on fire. She appeared at the races, one of the biggest social events of the year, without a shawl, a bold move for a society woman, especially for an empress. She was wearing an elegant, off-the-shoulder gown by the very up-and-coming couturier Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman who had recently opened the haute couture shop, “The House of Worth,” in Paris. The empress did not want the lovely gown hidden from view. The world of fashion took note. “The streets of Paris were soon buzzing with ladies without shawls.”

From her childhood days, Mary Todd Lincoln adored being the center of male attention. Once she became the First Lady, she longed to become a fashion trend setter. Ignoring the dowdy style of the English Queen Victoria, she modeled herself after Empress Eugénie, sticking flowers in her hair and bodice, piling on the jewels, and opting for expensive gowns that dipped in the bust and shoulder. Husband Abraham Lincoln called Mary’s dresses her “cat-tails.” Mary tried hard to be fashionably dressed but she was generally displeased with the result; the hooped dresses and yards of fabric swamped her short frame and the excess jewelry and ornamentation was overwhelming.

Mary Todd Lincoln in a photograph by Mathew Brady, November 1861, in a heavy white silk dress onto which Washington modiste Elizabeth Keckley had sewn 60 velvet bows and countless black dots.

Mary Todd Lincoln in a photograph by Mathew Brady, November 1861, in a heavy white silk dress onto which modiste Elizabeth Keckley had sewn 60 velvet bows and countless black dots.

Mary’s departure from the high-necked muslins worn by Western women brought swift condemnation from Oregon Senator James Nesmith, a guest at an 1862 East Room reception, who wrote to his wife of the 43-year-old “weak-minded Mrs. Lincoln and her sorry show of skin and bones. She had her bosom on exhibition, a flower pot on her head – There was a train of silk dragging on the floor behind her of several yards in length.” Mary Lincoln, continued the senator, who used to “cook Old Abe’s dinner and milk the cows,” now seemed eager “to exhibit her milking apparatus to public gaze.”

Mary’s plunging necklines caught Abe’s eye, too. “Whew,” he is quoted as saying, “our cat has a long tail tonight – if some of that tail was nearer the head, it would be in better style.”

(1) Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1987)

Read Full Post »