, , , ,

Former President Barack Obama Oil on canvas by Kehinde Wiley, 2018. National Portrait Gallery (Washington, D.C.)

Note: This was written some weeks before the Kim Sajet’s piece in The Atlantic appeared. Upon reading that, I decided to publish this essay.

Kehinde Wiley’s official portrait of President Obama hangs on a partial wall fronted by a velvet rope. Stanchions create an approach to the portrait, and people are lined up as if they’re waiting for communion, waiting to approach an altar. Which they are. The portrait is more vivid, more alive, in person than in print or online. The line of people–still long, still rapt, months after the painting was installed– is as moving as the portrait itself.

I knew I would like the portrait because I like the artist. The first Wiley I saw was at the MFA Boston, John, 1st Baron Byron hangs in a long hallway of a gallery, the chinoiserie background red and vibrant, loud the way 18th century wallpaper could be. Tendrils wrap around the subject’s legs, flat against the navy blue chinos, and without regard to the light that reflects from his palm. It stopped me in my tracks.

John, 1st Baron Byron. oil on canvas by Kehinde Wiley. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.2013.633

Obama’s portrait pricked my eyes with tears, not only for what I missed– the cool intelligence, the restraint, the reasonable domestic policies–but for the line of supplicants. There was a crowd of people who were moved the way I was moved, by the representation of a person. They were moved because of what the painting stood for, and how it represented the embodiment of an idea.

Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” portrait collage captures the beginning of the idea, Wiley’s portrait the mature realization. A copy of Fairey’s 2008 poster hung in my Providence living room, flatter than the original collage, stylized to a near caricature. Wiley’s portrait would suffer as a poster, print rendering the floral background lifeless, draining it of the light that saturates the portrait in person. The portrait glows on the gallery wall: Wiley has captured “hope” in paint and made it feel alive.

HOPE, by Shepard Fairey. Screenprint, 2008.

That light and life captivate viewers and draw them to the painting; they respond not only to what they know it represents, but to how the idea and accomplishment are represented. Watching people get in line to see a painting– no other presidential portrait, no other portrait, captured people’s attention and interest this way– proves not the popularity of a past president but the power of an object.

Wiley’s portrait, suffused with light, may be a modern altarpiece to the cult of celebrity, drawing crowds to worship an idol created by the media. Or it may be the physical representation of quintessentially American ideals of equality and progress, depicting a god of the mythical post-racial present. Or perhaps it’s a superficial representation of a superficial success, thin paint to match a thin pre-presidential resume. How we interpret an object is colored by our biases, but our response is not: our response is intuitive and automatic. That’s what I see in the queue to view Wiley’s portrait: people responding instinctively to beauty.

Sometimes I forget that no matter how interpretation and meaning layer an object, the first response is instinctive. It may be so fast we (almost) miss it, an impulse leaping across a synapse, but it is often the most honest response; the one we need to pay attention to so we can better understand how an object is presented to us or the public. The power is intrinsic to the object, whether an inlaid table or a portrait: the maker speaks to us through the object. Wiley’s portrait and the crowd who came to see it reminded me of that basic truth: the power is in the object. A curator’s label and presentation are secondary to the immediate response of the viewer to the object. There’s nothing like the real thing.

A Bonnet, Universally Acknowledged


, , , , , , , ,

Print made by James Caldwall, 1739–1819, British, A Ladies Maid Purchasing a Leek, 1772, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that if a bonnet existed in the 1770s, it was black taffeta” has long been the rule reenactors have followed, particularly those wanting to adhere to the strictest standards of well-researched impressions based on primary source documents and period material culture. Truth examined is more subtle, showing that bonnet colours, materials, and shapes varied from decade to decade—and year to year—and that these factors seem to have varied by region. What worked in Boston would not be comfortable in the Carolinas, and people adjusted accordingly.

I was asked recently about Boston-area bonnets in the first half of the 1770s. My impression of this decade is that it is one in which there is a stylistic change in women’s headwear, as the “sunshade”* and “Bath” bonnet terms fade from use, giving way to plain “bonnet” or “chip” bonnets. These appear to have been made from “bonnet paper,” seen in both blue and white** in newspaper ads, though prints and paintings show brims in both boned and paper forms.

The Rival Milleners. Mezzotint after John Collet, 1772. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1955-125

Brim shape and bonnet material— fabric and colour–  vary by period (and region). So let’s look at Boston in the first years of the 1770s. One tricky bit is that there are fewer indentured servants and enslaved people in Boston than elsewhere in the American Colonies in this period, so runaway ads are scarce, giving us fewer clues than we get in Pennsylvania and points south. Still, there are plenty of ads to help guide us.

As early as 1769, we see color variations, with the mention of “black, blue, green, white, and crimson bonnets” in Caleb Blanchard’s store. The year before, Joshua Gardner and Company advertised “black, pink, blue & crimson sattin hats and bonnets.” That means that on the streets of Boston and environs, by 1775, you’d see half-worn black, blue, green, white, crimson and pink satin bonnets.

The best statistics around for bonnets are currently tabulated for Pennsylvania, and definitely show the preponderance of bonnets are black (52 of 75 tabulated, or 69%). So don’t give up on black silk bonnets! They are the most common color. If we extrapolate these statistics, for a Pennsylvania event in the 1770s, of every 10 bonnets, seven should be black, one should be white, one should be green, and one should be blue. In larger groups, we’d also see red and brown bonnets, but again, just one in 20 or 30.

The Boston Gazette, April 4, 1774. Benjamin Franklin’s sister advertises “Sattins of the newest Fashion… for Bonnets.”

“A few sarsnet taffety bonnets,” in the Boston Evening Post, September 28, 1772.

For Massachusetts, statistics are more difficult to compile, given the dearth of runaway ads and the fact that I haven’t yet dived into inventory and probate records. Merchants’ ads give us some clues as to materials, and one thing I find is that “sattin” shows up, as well as “sarsnet taffety” or pelong. Sarsnet or sarcenet was a “think transparent silk of plain weave,” according to Textiles in America. Thicker than Persian, sarcenet was woven both plain and twill, and could be plain or changeable. Pelong is a kind of silk satin, again according to Textiles in America, and in The Dictionary of Fashion History, described as a kind of “thin silk satin,” but I have also seen it described as a ribbed silk. Joshua Blanchard advertised “Pelong sattins of all colours” in 1768. Where does that leave us with materials? Probably with the need for more bonnets to be made of silk satin than of silk taffeta, though the proportions are difficult to calculate yet.

Miss Theophila Palmer (1757-1848), oil on canvas, attributed to Sir Joshua Reynolds ca 1770.

What about shape? For those dressing a la mode, we are past the deep-brimmed, small-cauled “lampshade” of the 1760s, and into a smaller, tighter bonnet with a larger caul and more trimming. In the portrait of Miss Palmer, we see how the brim stands away from the face, and the caul or crown poufs up. “A Lady’s Maid Purchasing a Leek” and “The Rival Milleners” (aee above) both depict women in similarly tight-brimmed and round-crowned bonnets trimmed with bows. These are shapes that I am confident appeared almost universally (with variations) in the American colonies in the first years of the 1770s. Now, there are different shapes to be sure, but these seem to predominate. I do think we need to see more brims that wrap around the head, as seen in the 1774 mezzotint of George Whitefield (Anglo-America’s most popular preacher) and his followers.

Detail, A Call to the Converted. Publish’d April 15, 1774, by W. Humphry . Lewis Walpole Library, 774.04.15.01+

So what’s the take away, if we are looking specifically at Boston and environs in the first half of the 1770s?

  1. Most bonnets (70%) were black, but a few white, green, crimson, and blue were seen.
  2. Most bonnets were made of silk satin, with others of taffeta or sarsnet (sometimes twilled silk).
  3. Most bonnets would have a shorter, higher brim that curves across the face just above eye level, with a high, rounded crown/caul and bow trims.
  4. Bonnet brims would vary between bonnet (paste) board and boned

Each place has a local style– which, if you think about it, is still true today. When I stand on the Metro platform in the red wool coat I bought in Providence, these folks know I’m not from here. The way we dress for the past should reflect the place and the time we are representing as best we can. And that means we need accessories to match those times and places, as well as clothes.

And yes, full disclosure, I sell researched bonnets on Etsy. If you want a bonnet for a particular time and place, that’s what I make.

* Known on this blog as “lampshade”
** Nope, don’t know what that means yet, haven’t looked into it

Bed Gown, my Bed Gown


, , , ,

The female orators/ M. Rennoldson sculp. etching & engraving on laid paper, hand-colored. 1768. Lewis Walpole Library

I’m teaching a workshop in a few weeks, and that is giving me all kinds of reason to re-examine how I do things, what I know, and how I know it. After a few years, I worry that I take the knowledge I’ve gained for granted– which is a dangerous thing to do! Even when you have the good fortune to be building on the work of notable experts (like Sharon Burnston), you have to fact-check yourself. In part, I did this to verify that the pattern I use will work for the time period in question (last half/quarter of the 18th century). The other question I had was about material and prevalence. I’ve maintained that the bedgown is the most common, cozy, and cute garment of the 18th century, but is that true?

View near the Ring in Hyde Park, looking towards Grosvenor Gate, during the Encampment, Paul Sandby, 1780. Pen and watercolour |RCIN 451581

Many of the images of women in bed-gowns seem to depict older women made deliberately unattractive, poor women with their clothes in rags, or bawdy women. All of those are great in their own way, but most of us want to look our best (even when being our worst). For me, this affects the fabric choices I make. Fabric cheers me up– the varieties of color, texture, pattern make winter bearable, job rejections tolerable, and future plans graspable. I have a predilection for pattern, particularly Indian patterns, so I’m always looking for references to prints and chintz being worn.

Maryland Journal, July 17, 1776

Well, bless Jean Shepherd’s heart for running away (with a “down look”) from York, PA in 1776. She took off in a dark calico bed-gown, a brown worsted petticoat, and a half-worn white pelong bonnet. The images of printed bed gowns I’ve found thus far have light grounds (the yellow of the orators being more light than dark, though certainly saturated).

But I can find dark ground cottons, and while what I have is not documented reproduction, I am comfortable with it. The lining will be off-white plain weave wool because it’s winter. I don’t have documentation for this combination but among the fabrics on hand in my reduced-but-accessible Strategic Fabric Reserve, the wool has the best hand and the correct yardage, so wool it is. (It feels like brushed cotton, and was meant for a shift but needs must.)

Newspaper ads for runaways show a fair range of fabrics: red baize; red calico; brown linsey; stamped linen; black and white calico. That last sounds so graphic– and, worn with a black calimanco petticoat, must have been striking. This same woman, Katey Norton, also took with her “an homespun Cotton tight bodied Wrapper” which is appealing indeed– and which I can picture. But that’s another patterning exercise.

The Colour of Things to Come


, , , , , , ,

I have a thing for hats– well, for bonnets, really. I know I made stays and a shift before I made anything else for the 18th century, but I might have made a bonnet before I made a proper gown. It’s a condition I inherited from my grandmother, and a great aunt who was a milliner, so there’s little to be done about it– except to dive in deeper.

Miss Theophila Palmer (1757-1848), oil on canvas, attributed to Sir Joshua Reynolds ca 1770. Pretty sure that’s a white “whalebone” or “skeleton” bonnet.

As people do more research and generously share it with me, I’ve come to realize that I need to synthesize what we are seeing. It’s a tricky thing, what with that single (known) extant bonnet at Colonial Williamsburg and only prints and images to go on. What I’ve done to compile a stack of references from newspaper ads (primarily Mid-Atlantic and New England colonies at the moment) and interfiled them with images. This has given me a much better sense of  the change in shapes and construction over time, as well as the range of colours– yes, colours, available and popular.

It’s not just that wool bonnets are a thing– there’s the ““a reddish coloured worsted bonnet” in the April 8, 1776 Pennsylvania Packet an ad for runaway Margaret Collands, and the “black durant” recommended in Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor– but close reading shows that the colors are more varied than we’ve accept lately, but they vary by region and time period.

The Misses Waldegrave. Are blue bonnets *only* for children? Maybe.

There’s been a rule that “all bonnets are black silk,” which is too broad a statement. Most bonnets are black, that’s true. But in 1768, in Boston, a place where folks would have you think that black is the only colour bonnet you can ever have, you can have “Black, pink, blue and crimson sattin hatts and bonnets” (Joshua Gardner and Com. ad, Boston News-Letter, November 24, 1768).

Heck, if you shopped at Caleb Blanchard, you could have a green bonnet, too! Blanchard advertised “black, blue, green, white and crimson Sattin bonnets” in the Boston Gazette on December 18, 1769.

What does this mean? My SWAG is that roughly 60-70% of bonnets should be black. After that, blue, white, red and green would make up the balance. In Philadelphia, green bonnets– and green flowered bonnets– last longer in the ads. Philadelphia is also where I see more white bonnets, a brown silk bonnet, a diaper bonnet, a “queen’s grey” bonnet, and, in Trenton, a “lye coloured” bonnet. In Rhode Island, there’s a blue stuff bonnet. So yes, bonnets should mostly be black. But they can also be other colours.

Come Dancing


, , , , ,

There haven’t been as many chances to dance as I’d like of late, so when I got the Museum of the American Revolution’s invitation to come dancing at their January History After Hours event, I said yes. Luckily, I had to be in Philadelphia for the next day anyway, so out came the 1780 appropriate dress and the fancier shoes, along with my resolve not to be a wallflower, and off I went. I very nearly made it on time, but I dressed as fast as I could, and managed to join the crowd with my dress pinned and my hair tamed.

As at past balls, I was rescued by a kind soul (and excellent dancer) who took me through the steps and saved me from my occasional pattern dyslexia. (Reversing can be tricky– they didn’t let me drive the forklift much in school because my brain sometimes struggles to process a mirror image.) But Miss V was a gracious partner, and reader, I confess: I greatly enjoyed myself.

One aspect of historical dancing that has always appealed to me is the relationship between classical ballet and traditional English country dances. While you won’t find tutus on Jane Austen’s dance floor, you will find balancé and glissade, and the use of positions. This connection between two things I love, and the way movement can connect us to the past, makes me enjoy these dances even more. Using steps I learned and practiced endlessly decades ago in a hobby I pursue today is a very personal reminder of the persistence of the past.

An evening of dancing, with the best dance caller and instructor I’ve yet had the pleasure to meet, was a welcome winter treat.


Many thanks to Miss G.J. for the use of the photos, and deep honours to Miss V.D. as a partner, and Mr. N.V d.M., dancing master.