Drawings from the Index of American Design
The Index of American Design is an extraordinary collection of more than 18,000 watercolor renderings of American decorative art objects from the colonial period through the 19th Century. Produced between 1936 and 1942, this visual archive reflects the expanding interest in American material culture that began to emerge at that time.
This exhibition provides a brief survey of American fashions from 1740 to 1895. Most of the costumes represented are formal or "fine" garments of the kind that were preserved and handed down in families from one generation to the next. As fashion is influenced by social and political circumstances and by changes in technology, these costumes provide some insight into the character and quality of American life from colonial times into the period of the industrial revolution.
In the eighteenth century, elegant dresses were created with elaborately patterned fabrics, lace trim, and ruffles. Costume accessories and hair styles were equally elaborate, modeled on the fashions of women in the French court. French fashion exerted strong influence on English fashions, which were enthusiastically adopted by colonial gentlewomen.
This dress is made from a silk fabric known as "spitalfields," from an area in London where designers and weavers produced silks in a great variety of handsome patterns. Spitalfields fabrics can be dated quite precisely because of surviving records of the weaving designs. This dress can be dated around 1740, since the fabric was most likely woven in that year.
Oval-shaped hoops, called paniers, support this skirt. The word comes from the French, meaning "basket" or "hamper," since they resembled the baskets for provisions carried in pairs by horses or mules. Paniers were usually made of metal or whalebone. They were also known as paniers à coudes, the French word for elbow, because the wearer could rest her elbows on them.
Men’s shoes surviving from the eighteenth century are extremely rare. This man's shoe, dated about 1775, is made of gray suede and has a one-inch red leather heel and a brass buckle. The low, broad heel first appeared in America in the 1770s and continued in fashion until the turn of the century. Shoe buckles were both functional and decorative. Usually, no distinction was made between the left and right shoe; each shoe of a pair could be worn on either the left or the right foot.
This gentlemen's waistcoat from the early part of the eighteenth century is made of white linen with intricate embroidery called "whitework." This highly specialized form of embroidery, which incorporated a great variety of stitches, was widely used at the time. The eyelets on the left side of the opening in front were most likely for removable buttons or studs.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, men's waistcoats were becoming shorter and more open at the center front. This one, dated from about 1775 to 1780, is an example of the shorter-style garment. By 1790, waistcoats would be shortened to waist length, and the skirt or "peplum," seen here, would disappear. The scale and type of decoration also changed, becoming smaller and more delicate. Floral patterns and narrow stripes were also common in the fabrics for women's clothing during the 1770s.
A dramatic change in fashion away from extravagance and formality began to emerge in women's clothes during the last decades of the eighteenth century. Influenced by a resurgent interest in classical culture, owing to the archeological excavations of Pompii and Herculaneum earlier in the century, a neoclassical style of clothing came into vogue. More loosely structured dresses made from lightweight fabrics appeared in the 1770s and remained popular throughout the first two decades of the nineteenth century.
The effect of the loosely structured neoclassical style depended upon a foundation garment that pushed the bosom upward. The corset pictured here is made of heavy cotton sateen. The use of straps indicates it was made in the early part of the nineteenth century, about 1815, since straps were no longer used on corsets after the 1840s.
The development of industrialization during the nineteenth century led to an abundance of manufactured goods, including textiles, and contributed to reducing the overall cost of clothing. As a result, great variety in fashions was feasible. A well-to-do woman could have a selection of dresses for different social occasions.
Multicolored printed cotton or linen fabrics were fashionable in Europe as early as the seventeenth century, when trade with the East began to flourish. Later, English and French textile manufacturers began to produce their own versions to compete with imported materials. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, American textile manufacturers were producing inexpensive printed fabrics because of the availability of cheap cotton and the introduction of mechanical spinning machines.
Dated from the 1840s, the bonnet is Victorian in style. The Victorian Age corresponds to the reign of England's Queen Victoria. Victorianism, in general, fostered certain attitudes about respectability, particularly with regard to the behavior of women. This bonnet, fitting down over the sides of the face, was intended to shield the wearer from the gaze of strangers.
This handbag was made about 1850 in New Orleans. It is crocheted in black cotton, beaded, and has cut steel and jet ball trimmings. The design and decorative detail reflect a general taste in costume and the decorative arts at this time, which was more exuberant and less constrained than taste of the previous decade.
Parasols -- used for protection against the sun -- became stylish in Europe in the middle of the eighteenth century. In 1772, a Baltimore merchant's chance purchase from a ship's store introduced the parasol to America. Soon the fashion centers of Philadelphia and New York took an interest in this kind of accessory. By the nineteenth century, parasols were commonly used by women for carriage rides or for promenading.
The folding fan was probably invented in Japan in the seventh century. Examples of fans from the East were brought into Europe during the Crusades. Folding fans were common as costume accessories by the eighteenth century and were introduced to America as early as 1732. During the colonial period, Boston was a fan-making center.
This fan from about 1860 is constructed of black wood supports decorated with red and gold flowers. The upper portion is a colored engraving of fashionable young women and men amusing themselves in the countryside.
In addition to the beauty of this accessory, the way a fan was used indicated something of a woman's social grace. The English writer Joseph Addison, in his work The Spectator, compared a lady's skill with a fan to a man's use of a sword.
Men's clothing of the mid-nineteenth century has the simplicity of style to which we are accustomed today. This coat and hat, dated about 1840, were made for Joseph Bimmler, founder of the Zoar Society, a religious community in Ohio. The coat of dark blue broadcloth was made in the community sewing house. The hat, called a "Beaver" or tall hat, has a label inside indicating that it was made by E. Brown in Philadelphia.
Designed for little boys under the age of ten, this type of suit came to be known later as "Little Lord Fauntleroy." The name was taken from a popular story published in 1866 by Frances Hodgson Burnett and illustrated by Reginald Birch.
To complete the outfit, a child would wear white silk stockings and buckled shoes.
This two-piece, red silk "afternoon" dress has a cage-type skirt hoop to emphasize the fullness behind and includes a train at the floor to carry out the effect. Double sleeves were popular in the 1850s and 1860s; the idea was adapted from men's fashions where the shirt cuffs protruded beyond the sleeves of the jacket. Here the undersleeve, or "engageant," is of lace.
This is an example of a cage-hoop used underneath a skirt to provide fullness at the back of a woman's dress. Dated about 1865, it is made of half circles of reeds or whalebone riveted to bands of heavy linen tape. It is fastened at the waist with a steel buckle.
An important effect of the hoop was the graceful, swinging motion it gave to a woman's skirt as she walked.
The "visiting dress," dated 1883, is made of wool. It is constructed of multiple pieces. The waist has eight fitted parts, six in back and two in front. The overskirt is draped from the bustle at the back where it falls in a train. The vest, cuffs, and ruffle around the bottom of the skirt are of red velvet.
While the bustle continued to be fashionable into the 1890s, a new style, called the "hourglass look," began to emerge. In this dress, dated about 1893, the hourglass effect of a narrow waist was achieved by padding the hips and widening the shoulders. The balloon sleeves and ruffles seen here are silk. The decorative band at the bottom of the skirt is embroidered black velvet.
During the 1890s, women participated in sports to a greater extent than earlier in the century. Bicycling had gained in popularity and helped make pants or "bloomers" acceptable for women's costumes. The word "bloomers" is taken from the name of Mrs. Amelia Bloomer of New York, who was an early advocate of women's rights.
This "gymnasium suit," dated 1895, is made of black cashmere wool trimmed with bands of scarlet cashmere and black soutache -- a flat, narrow ornamental braid seen here at the borders of the scarlet trim. Plain, full bloomers, worn under the skirt, have elastic bands at the bottom. The costume includes a red and black plaid double cape.
Sports costumes symbolized a new freedom and sense of change that was in the air at the end of the nineteenth century.