An award this year from the Friends of the Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters, a National Historic Site, meant that the staff at Museum Textile Services have gotten intimately acquainted with a dress so central to this Cambridge, Massachusetts, mansion that it was worn by several generations of occupants over the span of a century. Made of bright yellow silk in pristine condition, the dress is adorned with black velvet and fragile lace trim over deteriorating layers of cotton bobbinet. During the textile conservation treatment, we took the opportunity to learn more about this dress in the Spanish style.
Certain elements of Spanish dress were well known enough to be co-opted for formal dress in France, England, and America. An 1855 Godey's story describes a hostess choosing a "fancy costume...of a Spanish lady"--the same description that Fanny herself uses. Ardern Holt's 1887 book Fancy dresses described; or, What to wear at fancy balls gives a number of Spanish-styled outfits, and a common theme--besides the high comb and the mantilla—is the use of black trim and lace, paired with a bold color. That Fanny favored this aesthetic is suggested by an 1834 portrait of her with a black lace mantilla against a red figured velvet.
The over-arching category of "Spanish Lady" costume, according to Holt, featured a "short satin skirt (white, red, yellow, or rose) with black lace flounces headed by bands of velvet or gold; low bodice of the same...high comb; lace mantilla fastened over it with red and yellow roses." An 1895 glass plate photograph of Fanny's youngest daughter Anne Allegra Longfellow (1855–1934) shows Anne wearing the dress we are conserving and matching this description almost perfectly, down to the mantilla and comb.
Further confusing the dating of this dress are additional images from the 20th century, one a painting and another a set of photographs. Around 1940, a portrait was made by American painter Marguerite Stuber Pearson of a young woman in the Longfellow parlor. Her hairstyle and face are strikingly similar to pictures of Fanny Appleton, who died nearly a century earlier in 1861, at the young age of 44. The Spanish dress has undergone some alterations since the glass plate image from the 1890s. Three tiers of black Chantilly lace can clearly be seen covering the stark white bobbinet on the skirt, as well as on the sleeves. Other additions we found, such as a pair of Naiad Dress Shields in the underarms, suggest the dress was also worn in the 1910s or 20s when that company was at the height of its popularity. Perhaps for a celebration of the centennial of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's birth in 1907?
So could this be the same dress Fanny writes about in her 1839 letter? The evidence points to no. Judging from its silhouette and construction, this dress dates to the middle of the 19th century, probably between 1855 and 60. It has a three-tiered skirt, characteristic of the mid 1850s, and box-pleats, which experienced a renaissance around 1860. The deep bodice point and wider sleeves also grew more popular at the end of the 1850s. The 120” diameter hem was stiffened with a ring of plaited wood, possibly hickory, implying that it was made before the hoop crinoline came into popular use in the 1860s. Could Fanny have worn the dress before her untimely death in 1861? The answer is yes. In all likelihood, she admired the Spanish style enough to have more than one sumptuous dress of black and yellow in her lifetime.
Stay tuned for additional MTS Blogs about the dress's most striking feature—its bright yellow silk.