Next weekend is the first-ever Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall, commemorating Leslie’s Retreat, Salem’s opening act of the American Revolution, as well as the spirit of resistance over time and in our own time. Its organizers are encouraging, but not demanding, period dress so I have to figure out what I’m going to wear. I have a magic closet on the third floor full of evening dresses from the late 50s and early 60s that I rely on for all formal occasions, but I think this event calls for something different. It’s too late to go the custom reproduction route and I detest cheap costumes. About a decade ago, I commissioned a period gown (and stays!!! which were actually more expensive than the gown) for a ball marking the 200th anniversary of the Salem Athenaeum: I just assumed I would wear this regency gown for the Resistance Ball but when I took it out, put it on, and pranced around in it the other night I realized it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Too late, too Jane Austen, not enough Abigail Adams. So now I’m at a loss as to what to wear.
If I had realized my mistake sooner I probably would have ordered a dress or a robe à l’Anglaise from one of the amazing seamstresses out there: I have an old silk petticoat that would suffice. I particularly like the silk jacket below, but putting together an outfit around that little number would take time and considerable money, not just for the jacket, but for all the underpinnings: it’s all about the silhouette in historical clothing. With my time constraints, I’m thinking about the basic design elements of late eighteenth-century fashions—corsetry, cinching, embellishment, neckline, silhouette–and seeing if I can come up with something “18th-century-esque” for next week. I don’t think I’m going to go as far as the Versace corset dress from the 90s below, but I definitely want an updated eighteenth-century look.
There is lots of inspiration out there because of the combined aesthetic influence of Hamilton and Outlander: polyvore sets abound! American Revolutionary women have never been singled out for their sartorial style, but their near-contemporary across the Atlantic, Marie Antoinette, seems to have a fashion moment every twenty years or so. Now, however, the Schuyler sisters and Clare Fraser rule. There are lessons for updating in the strategies of the costume designers of both productions. Hamilton designer Paul Tazwell seems to focus on color, and notes that “in keeping the overall design as contemporary feeling as possible while still in the silhouette of the 18th century, I kept the detailing as simple as possible so that it didn’t feel too decorative and fussy. I used mostly silk taffeta for the dresses on the women because it stays crisp and light and moves in a way that viscerally feels like the 18th century to me”. Outlander designer Terry Dresbach (who maintains a beautiful blog with many insights into her process) is dealing with a time-traveler, so a bit of adaptation is required: a 1940s Dior jacket that Clare might have worn in her 20th century life is transported to the eighteenth century along with her, and both are altered in the process!
Hamilton’s Schuyler sisters on stage, dressed by Paul Tazwell; the Dior inspiration for Outlander’s “time-traveling” jacket by Terry Dresbach.
Thinking about both the essentials of eighteenth-century style and their adaptation, I browsed around for hours (what a rabbit hole!) and put together a working digital inspiration board. Pinned mostly from ebay and various designer archives, these are the dresses that seem to represent the look I’m going after best. Moving around the board clockwise, we have a very editorial look by Jean Paul Gaultier, a detail of a really beautiful Prada black taffeta gown, an Azzedine Alaia wedding ensemble (for some reason this screams 18th century to me!), a Zac Posen dress, a Carolina Herrera gown, and Dita von Teese in a Vivienne Westwood toile dress complete with panniers. Even if I could find one of these pieces, I couldn’t afford them, but they got me thinking in different directions about bodices, bows, draping, and toile…….what about a toile dress? Too day/summery? It would have to be the right toile, and the right style–too late for that now.
Of all the designers above, it is clearly Vivienne Westwood who has been the most immersed in and influenced by the eighteenth century over her long career. She’s amazing at focusing in on the key elements and bringing a new artistic sensibility to them. The poster for the big present/past fashion moment several years ago, Le XVIIIeme au goût du jour (The 18th Century Back In Fashion) exhibition at the Palace of Versailles, features (half of) her bold dress on its poster, and two years ago her eighteenth-century-esque clothes were exhibited in situ at the newly restored Danson House in London (lately seen in the television series Taboo). Westwood’s “Sunday” day dress from a few years back looks to me like the perfect distillation of eighteenth-century style, but it’s really too informal for a ball and I can’t find one anyway.
A Vivienne Westwood corset at Danson House.
So that’s where I am now, pretty much nowhere, although I can just raid my third-floor closet and wear classic vintage formal. I’m trying to remember what my now-vintage Laura Ashley dresses, which I think are still at my parents’ house up in Maine, look like, though I seem to recall they are more nineteenth-century-esque than eighteenth-century-esque. And very puffy sleeves: all wrong.