Archive for October 31st, 2008

On dress purchases from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence:

“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 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…”

The quote above refers to an older woman. One would imagine, that her two velvet gowns would be used for the colder months, the two satin for for formal events, the silk, likewise for more formal events, the cashmere for the coldest weather, and the poplin for warm weather.

Upper class women of the period traveling to Paris or ordering from the U.S. would purchase large quantities of  gowns designed by Parisian designers for small fortunes. The ballgowns would be very flimsy. The decoration would be made of fine, fine lace, tulle, delicate silk flowers, delicate beading, and insubstantial bodices. Dancing in a heated ballroom wearing such ephemeral concoctions would have lead to wilt and wear. Add to the mix a lack of deoderant and low-technology cleaning and the reason for disposable but expensive ball gowns becomes clear.

The gown I designed would be a reception gown or possibly a visiting gown worn in the colder months of the year. Upper class women would receive guests in their homes wearing relatively formal, though not flamboyant dresses. It is unlikely that this gown would be worn for balls or evening events, as the bodice is too sporty, and the decoration is not flimsy. The silk pleating and details do, however, make it rustle.

Silk was the preferred material for gowns. It was expensive, stiff so it could hold pleats and ruffles, soft to the touch, shiny, and it ‘rustled.’ Rustling skirts were an aspect of the sensory output of a Victorian woman both in public and in private. They would make the room aware of both her presence and her femininity. In Edith Wharton’s novels, the ‘rustle of skirts’ is always heard by men, never by women, suggesting that the ‘rustle of skirts’ was sign and reminder of sexual roles. Mr. Gryce hears it in the House of Mirth, where the sound signals the return of societal rules. Archer in Age of Innocence is made motionless by it as he allows himself to float into happy thoughts of feminine oblivion. The ‘soft rustle’ of skirts heralds the coming of Ella, and her role as wife to her husband. Though men may be allowed moments of sentimentality and surrender, they do not rustle. Rustling is reserved for the women.

I should have my photos very, very soon. In fact, that is why I am ending this post.


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