Monday, August 18, 2014

Keeping up Appearances

In these days where most Americans think nothing of wearing shorts, t-shirts and sandals to a restaurant or even a wedding, we sometimes forget the importance our society once placed on "making a decent appearance," as the saying once went.  

I was reminded of this today when I got into a discussion on the Texas Living History Association group site on Facebook about how important fashion might be to American frontier women working at home and in public.  The initial question was about head coverings in the first decades of the 19th century and extended generally to work clothing.  I'd like to offer here a few period images with comment.  

The first is "The Life and Age of Woman," a popular early print that shows age-appropriate dress for various stages of life.  You'll notice that the girls and women are all dressed for the same period (c. 1845) and not a span of eighty or more years as we might at first think.  This is a cross-section of the dress of middle-class females in the mid-1840s. [Image from the Library of Congress]. 

Notice that the day cap, once a necessity for any respectable woman, is beginning to lose favor even with young married women. 

 Here is another example, "The Bashful Cousin," by Francis William Edmonds.  The setting is rural New York State, c. 1841, but it could be almost anywhere in the United States or the "settlements."  Here we see a young, unmarried girl from a family that is comfortable enough to own their home, employ a cook and wear decent clothing, but also needs to do some housework themselves.  Many frontier settlers came from this class.  The girl is dressed for general house work in the bodice of an old silk gown, a red flannel petticoat and sensible pumps and stockings. She has a black fichu tied loosely over her shoulders and what I take to be a blue dish cloth tucked into her waistband to serve perhaps as an apron or hand towel as needed.  Compare her dress with the older woman's (her mother?) - pink gown and fine linen day cap - and the African American servant coming from the kitchen - head scarf and bib apron.  As we've seen, younger women at this time were just freeing themselves of the day cap;  even young mothers.  But the cap as a sign of respectability was hard to let go of.  [Image from the National Gallery of Art].

Our final picture is a detail from "The Times," a satirical print published in New York City in 1837.  Here we see a drunkard and his family who represent the lowest rung of society. Notice, though, that the man attempts to keep up appearances of respectability by wearing all of the necessary garments expected of a working class man or farmer, (hat, shirt, neckerchief, jacket, trousers and shoes), even though they are shabby and broken down.

His wife, too, tries to maintain appearances.  She wears a shapeless gown, obviously without a corset or stays, and has neither stockings nor shoes.  But, though she is falling-down drunk and her hair hangs loose, she still has on a cap, proudly signifying that she is a married woman. [Image from the Library of Congress].

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