Thursday, December 13, 2012

There's Something About Mary.

So... yeah. This is a pirate post. Yarrgghh. I'm pretty sure that about 99% of the images in this post are un-credited or improperly credited or blatantly stolen. They all came from the murky depths of a crippled zip-drive and in the American spirit of "But I don't WANT to!", I refuse to track them all down again and do this correctly.

Journal of the American Institute for Conservation. This I just swiped tonight. I love this kind of stuff. This is somebody's whored up 15-year old daughter wearing MARY TODD LINCOLN'S OPERA CAPE. The one that has ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S BLOOD ON IT. But you know, photo ops gotta happen. 

But then, if you are seeking class, refinement and a sense of moral and personal responsibility, you probably aren't reading this anyway. And if you are determined to enjoy the illicit fruits of my highly suspect "scholarly" rambling but need a little Protestant absolution for your sins, go kick around on Pinterest for a while. (Pinterest... where almost anything can have a fan club, and un-credited photos get swapped around like crotch rot in an army camp.) 

Mary's wrist watch. Get this... she's one of the first people known to actually use a wrist watch. Granted, this is clearly a "cross-over" piece of jewelry that just happens to include a time-piece (that front bit is hinged) but still! This came from an auction, I think?

I'm a Mary Lincoln nerd from way back. (Okay... maybe just four years back. Whatever. Sue me.) Deep in the "not quite fit for company" archives of Thread-Headed unpublished bilge are a couple of blog posts about Mary's apocryphal childhood hoop-skirt and another about her relationship with her White House seamstress and friend, Elizabeth Keckley. But I've read so many neat things about the making of the new "Lincoln" movie lately, and they got me to thinkin' about Mmmmary, so here we are.

Mary's checked wrapper and cape. This little number has a cute coat-sleeved dress under the capey goodness, but I cannot find the one picture I used to have of the full dress. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, but they don't show the whole thing on that link and you can't capture the image from the museum site. So I have no idea how I have this. You're welcome.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to do a focused project on Mary Todd Lincoln for an American history class. It was meant to be a selective overview of the clothing of Abraham Lincoln, his wife and their children. So naturally I cheerfully and unrepentantly did nothing of the kind, and instead turned in 80+ pages of pictures and assorted prose on the wild n' wacky wardrobe of Abe's main squeeze. As it happens, there are a frickin' ton of artifacts associated with Mary Lincoln that have survived, ranging from earrings and watch fobs to full dresses and even her toilet. This is due in large part to her relentless buying-and-purging habits, but it's a boon to Lincoln enthusiasts.

Kent State Museum. Elizabeth Keckley made this quilt *supposedly* out of scraps of material left over from the many garments she made for Mary Lincoln. The quilt may have been made during the White House years, but possible started much later. 

And hoarding enthusiasts. Mary spent the last few years of her life, rockin' it out like a hoarding rock star. She kept a room full of trunks which were in turn full of fabric and clothing that she couldn't use or wear. The room was so over-crowded and packed that a family maid refused to sleep in her appointed room because the constant screech and sag of the floor-boards in Mary's room above (which formed her ceiling) kept her awake at night. The best part? It wasn't her room OR her house she was slowly destroying... She was a guest. A hoarding, belligerent, demented guest. Demented? Yes, demented. Mary's elevator quit servicing the top floors back before Abe died. By the time she lost her youngest son nearly 10 years after Abraham was murdered, even the fire escapes were closed.

First known photograph of Mary Lincoln. Taken in or around 1847, way before she buried three of her four children and lost her husband. Love the stripes and the magnificent over-accessorizing. A pin! And a sheer lace shawl! And a belt! With a buckle! Some super-lacey contrasting sleeve inserts! And some non-functioning buttons down the skirt! Perfection.

 But clothes! Pretty clothes!

Postcard from the Smithsonian, showing what is probably the most iconic "Mary" dress in existence today as it was styled by the museum staff in the 1950s or 60s. You can almost hear the conservators saying: "Yeah, so maybe it didn't puddle on the floor when she wore it, but hoop-skirts are like, totally tacky. But I really like the neckline all jacked up on her shoulders like that... that was a good idea, Janice."
"Thanks, Mark. It just felt right. Let's go try on Washington's Pantaloons again." 

Scattered through this post are some of the things most commonly (or maybe not so commonly) associated with Mary Todd Lincoln. Despite the warning at top, I've tried to link back where possible, but please forgive any oversights. (Or help! If you recognize something, lemme know!) One of the most interesting aspects of researching Mary Lincoln's wardrobe is the preponderance of contradictory information you encounter. Some claim that only one original dress survives. Some claim four. Others, seven.  The video at the bottom features a very well-spoken young man who confidently states that only two complete gowns survive. (The Strawberry dress and the assassination-night dress.) The fact that the Smithsonian has both the purple velvet gown seen above (including the day bodice that matches the skirt) as well as an altered silk striped gown that has been partially restored automatically calls his statement into question. In the course of my research, I've encountered the following (mostly) complete garments that are associated with Mary Lincoln. As far as I know, these have excellent provenance:

* The Keckley-made purple velvet evening and day ensemble at the Smithsonian.
* The striped silk (patterned with violets and black stripes) also at the Smithsonian.
* The Strawberry dress at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
* The green and white "buffalo check" dress and cape from the Chicago Historical Museum. (Third image down)

Then there are a few "maybes" out there:

* Homeskillet in the video below claims that the assassination dress is still around... that is possible but there are numerous accounts of it being cut into pieces by Mary for relic-hunters and mementos for family.
* The Ford Museum has a truly amazing orange and cream silk number (with shoes!) that they claim belonged to Mary. My issue is that it looks very late 1860's, and Mary wore black from Abraham's death until her own death in 1882. (Except on Tad's 16th birthday, because he asked nicely.)
* Supposedly the Mary Todd Lincoln House has an original garment that was donated. They frequently display re-creations of Antebellum clothing, but I have never seen any images of the purported original.
* The Lincoln Library received a donation of a skirt that was supposed to be from Mary's wedding dress several years ago. The garment came along with a donation of Lincoln's briefcase. (wow.) To my knowledge, it has not been displayed (but I'm not sure of that.)

That doesn't include the fragmentary garments and large accessories such as the cape at top, at least two possible "mourning skirts" and a bevy of fans, handkerchiefs, shawls, bonnets and even several chemises.

I suppose it's only appropriate that Mary's residual wardrobe is something of a scattered mystery, since that's ultimately what history has made of the woman herself.

As a special bonus treat for hanging in there til the bloody end, here's that video I promised of a posh museum-type talking about the "Strawberry Dress" in the collection of the Lincoln Library.

Video scalped from YouTube, courtesy of the Lincoln Library. Starring the awesomely elusive Strawberry Dress!


  1. I got to go in that archival part of the Lincoln Library with my senior research class in college, and even been within inches of touching some of Lincoln's letters, but the storage area is SCARY. They told us if someone so much as struck a match in there and the sensors detected smoke, the doors lock and oxygen is apparently sucked out of the rooms in a ridiculously short amount of time. Yeeeps. I adore libraries, and history, and artifacts...but I love my oxygen so I was anxious to get out of there.

  2. Fascinating! TRUNKS full of fabric... Wow. I wonder if she was hoarding against the possible overthrow of the US Govt? Or just because she could. And not even her own house. Wow. That's gall.
    As to the on the shoulder purple number above... It is a truly novel way of holding a fan. As in "will somebody please repair this wi th some historically correct silk??"
    Don't blame you for this or any other obsession... Keep it coming!
    Nancy N

  3. Super fun video link to the Strawberry Dress. Wish I could have seen it - I may have to wait for another 26 years for it to be brought out again! Darn it!

  4. You are hilarious. And I basically want that cape.