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.
Mollie Parnis dress from Mayflower Vintage.
Highlights from Charles A. Whitaker Auctions.
More of Quinn Burgess’s work can be found at: The Quintessential Clothes Pen; www.quinnmburgess.com; Twitter (@thequinnpen) and Instagram (@thequinnpen).
You can see more period dances and dancers at vintagedancers.org +upcoming events.
December 5th, 2020 at 7:23 am
Note the erect posture on your ladies of the past. No slouching for these irresistible lovelies. Even if I somehow managed to squeeze into these tiny dresses, I don’t think I could pull off the posture and stop slumping down the back of the chair.
December 5th, 2020 at 12:15 pm
I think it has quite a lot to do with undergarments……
December 5th, 2020 at 8:06 am
Thanks for that array of beautiful gowns with Salem connections. You always find the most appropriate pics.
This week I had to visit Macy’s at the North Shore Mall to get my annual supply of Shalimar. So I had to pass though racks and racks of holiday dresses, with emphasis on those appropriate for New Year’s Eve in the “beforetimes.” Not sure how many they will sell. So sad.
But best to you and yours for the holidays…
December 5th, 2020 at 9:06 am
Thoroughly enjoyed this, Donna~ wonderful links, too! Thank you. Dressing in the early 1800s must’ve been a treat for those who could afford it (I’m partial to the ladylike fashions of the Regency Period, myself). But I find vintage wear compelling, too…in fact, the Mayflower Vintage Shop has a sweet little black faux fur jacket from the 50s that I’m dreaming of…
December 6th, 2020 at 11:16 am
Thanks so much for this treat of festive dresses from the past. If I could I’d wave my wand over the Mollie Parnis and change it to you size. You look great in it.
What a wonderful surprise to open your Blog and see Quinn Burgress and some of her work. The Colonial Dames are about to hire her to make some reproduction dress for us to display in our museum house at 55 Beacon St. So exciting.
December 8th, 2020 at 3:50 pm
Oh great to know! Can’t wait to see.