Maybe you’ve seen this week’s New Yorker cover: a woman in her apartment on her computer, presumably in a Zoom meeting. She’s wearing a lovely blouse, earrings, and lipstick and her hair looks great, so all “above” is perfect. But below, out of sight of the computer screen, is another matter: she is wearing gym shorts and slippers, there is scattered paper everywhere, along with Amazon boxes, drinking vessels, and two cats. And she’s drinking a cocktail. That, dear readers, is me in the fall of 2020, teaching four courses while writing a book, with a new kitten running all around. Next week classes will end and I’m just about finished with a particularly difficult chapter: then I’m going to put on a skirt and tights and real shoes. This sad state of sartorial affairs has depressed me, as generally in December I’m thinking about what I’m going to wear to the Hamilton Hall Christmas Dance and other holiday events: obviously not happening this year. We’re also fortunate in Salem to see attendees of the Commonwealth Vintage Dancer’s Fezziwig’s Ball walking through the streets to Old Town Hall: again, not this year. So I’ve mustered up some historic Salem dresses and some new-old dresses in historic Salem settings to get myself in the holiday mood, material girl that I am.
My favorite Salem dress ever is Sarah Ellen Derby Roger’s wedding dress, in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum. I looked for something similar with Salem provenance, and found this lovely pale pink gown with amazing sleeves. I also found the wonderful blog of historical clothing maker Quinn Burgess, The Quintessential Clothes Pen. Since Quinn has attended several events in Salem wearing her own creations, I thought you would like to see some period clothes in situ, at Hamilton Hall and Old Town Hall. Her dresses below are designs from 1812-1813, about a decade earlier than Sarah’s wedding dress and its more muted cousin.
Sarah Ellen Derby Roger’s Wedding Dress, made in Salem from materials from India,1827, Peabody Essex Museum (Gift of Jeannie Dupee, 1979); Pale pink silk gown, Charles A. Whitaker Auctions. Quinn Burgess at Hamilton Hall and with her friends at Fezziwig’s Ball in Old Town Hall–an annual event sponsored by the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers. Photo credits: L. Stern (white and red dresses at Hamilton Hall) and James Sabino (The Festive Ladies at Old Town Hall).
Let’s go forward a bit to the middle of the nineteenth century, not really my favorite period for design, but the ladies below make it look good! I came across this Civil War photograph of Marianne Cabot Devereaux Silsbee, author of A Half Century in Salem (1886) in her photograph album at the Phillips Library in Rowley. Despite the volume, I imagine this must be a day dress, but I found a very colorful chartreuse and purple ballgown from a Salem family in the archives of Whitaker’s auctions in Philadelphia. I always thought I liked that color combination, but now I’m not so sure: I think I prefer Quinn’s more subtle gown—hardly a “little” black dress–indeed Quinn tells me it is blue!
Marianne C.D. Silsbee, Phillips Library PHA 58; Civil War Era silk ballgown from a Salem family, Charles A. Whitaker Auctions; Quinn Burgess in a navy c. 1860 dress at Hamilton Hall (photographer credit: Emma Forrest).
And speaking of little black dresses, I’m going to jump forward a century to show you one from a Salem purveyor: a Mollie Parnis dress from the Mayflower Vintage shop on Etsy. Gorgeous. I’m not sure I’d wear this to the Christmas Dance, as I prefer more of a ballgown for that occasion, but (if I could fit into it), I’d find someplace to wear it. I’m looking forward to the moment when I can even think about what dress I might wear, where.
Highlights from Charles A. Whitaker Auctions.