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18th-century-esque

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.

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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.

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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!

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outlander-christian-dior-exclusive-designHamilton’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.

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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.

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18th century Westwood Cut From the Past Danson House 2015 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.


Bring Back Bicycle Wheels….and Wooden Teeth

One of my favorite photographs of a Salem street shows a block of Essex adjacent to North in the 1890s: the three buildings in the picture are vastly preferable to those that occupy the space now, but what I really admire are the signs, particularly that single bicycle wheel sign in front of Whitten’s Bicycle Shop. Signs were just so much better then; I don’t know what happened. Well, probably cars, along with plastic and neon.

Essex Street Signs

Signs Essex Street Ugh.

Actually I kind of like that Bonchon building, and if you can see (it’s pretty small), this business features not only the standard facade or wall sign but also a small projecting blade sign—an absolutely necessity in the “walking city” that Salem claims to be. Salem does have some really nice blade signs, commissioned by creative and civic-minded business owners who are investing in the look and feel of the city as well as their own enterprises. But there are also too many plastic facade and sandwich board signs scattered about, projecting the message: we’re just here for the Halloween season. Washington Street is lined with blade signs, as is Front, but ye olde Essex—the ancient “highway” of Salem– could do a lot better, in my humble opinion.

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I suppose I am a sign snob: trade signs from a century or more ago just seem more creative to me in both their typography and their imagery. I particularly like symbolic signs in which bicycle wheels, keys, watches, boots, glasses, hats, and mortars & pestles advertise bicycle shops, locksmiths, jewelers, shoemakers, opticians, hatters and apothecaries. Key signs seem to be in every antique shop I go into, so they must have been a universal sign for that profession. I’ve seen lots of double-sided clock signs too, but the one below is particularly stunning.

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Wouldn’t a big white wooden tooth look great hanging from or instead of this Essex Street Dentist’s sign? (maybe the one of the left is a bit scary).

Sign collage 1Nineteenth-century trade signs from Skinner Auctions (key, bicycle wheel, smaller tooth); Architectural Anarchy at 1st Dibs (clock); Northeast Auctions (Hat and “We Defy Competition sign); and the American Folk Art Museum (large tooth).


A Heightened Sense of Detail

It’s rather jarring to read the lines written by Salem’s chatty diarist, the Reverend William Bentley, about his encounter with the Salem artist George Ropes Jr. in 1804: “Paid G. Ropes’ Bill for head of Curwin, Salem, Minister, the painting by him. He is a dumb boy with Corné. Had receipt. $4.00”.  Bentley had commissioned a portrait copy of the Reverend Samuel Curwen from Ropes, who was then an apprentice of the Italian emigré artist Michel Felice Cornè. George Ropes, Jr. (1788-1819), the son of a Salem sea captain (how many times have I written than?) was indeed born deaf and was by all accounts speechless for all of his relatively short life, but Bentley’s notes upon his early death are more telling: Died of consumption, deaf and dumb, a painter, active, acute, circumspect, and esteemed.”  Ropes had to become the primary breadwinner for his family upon his father’s death at sea in 1807 and so he became a practical  painter of signs and such as well as an artist. While all art is evidence for the historian, I’ve always felt that Ropes’ works are more documentary in their detail, particularly two paintings in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Launching of the Ship Fame (1802) and Crowninshield’s Wharf (1806). I’ve shown it here several times, but I can’t post on Ropes without including his masterpiece, Salem Common on Training Day (1808), which is also in the collection of the PEM. Those poplars! I can never see this painting too many times.

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George Ropes, Jr.: The Launching of the Ship Fame, Crowninshield’s Wharf, and Salem Common on Training Day, all courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

My favorite story about Ropes comes from the Pickering Genealogythe source of endless interesting anecdotes about Salem people. In another testimony to his skill and eye for detail, it is noted that on one occasion when the parlor in the house of Jarathmeel Peirce was being papered, it was found that there was not enough, and it being imported paper, more could not be obtained. He undertook to finish it by painting, which he did so accurately that it was impossible to tell where his work began or where it ended. A decorating crisis averted!  Ropes is probably best known for his marine paintings, including a lovely “portrait” of George Crowninshield’s famous luxury yacht Cleopatra’s Barge, and several paintings of the USS Constitution in battle during the War of 1812.The US Constitution Museum has a series of four paintings painted by Ropes (after Corné) depicting the famous engagement with the HMS Guerriere in August of 1812 which earned the victorious American ship the nickname of “Old Ironsides”, and at the end of next month, a Ropes painting of the victory of the Constitution over the HMS Java in December of 1812 will be auctioned off at Dan Morphy Auctions in Pennsylvania. Artistic reportage, and some pretty bold titles, from this silent “signmaker”.

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George Ropes, Jr., the last of the Constitution and Guerriere paintings, USS Constitution Museum Collection; Constitution vs. Java, Morphy Auctions.


Why are there no WPA Murals in Salem?

The various initiatives of the Works Progress Administration made their mark on Salem during the Depression: substantive work on Greenlawn Cemetery and the Salem Armory was completed, Olde Salem Greens was carved out of Highland Park, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site was created along Derby Street. Many historic structures in Salem were measured and photographed under the aegis of the Historic American Building Survey, for which I am grateful nearly every day. I’m sure there were more infrastructural improvements implemented with federal funds in Salem in the 1930s, but I don’t have the time or the inclination to lose myself in the massive archives of the New Deal!  There is a conspicuous absence of federally-funded art in Salem however: no murals in the Post Office or City Hall illustrating the city’s dynamic and dramatic history. This absence is conspicuous because Massachusetts in general, and the North Shore in particular, is home to some notable New Deal murals, commissioned by various Federal cultural agencies to embellish public spaces with uplifting, patriotic, accessible American scenes while simultaneously providing unemployement for artists. There are amazing murals in Boston, Worcester and Springfield, and in Natick, Lexington, and Arlington, and here in Essex County, in Gloucester City Hall, Abbot Hall in Marblehead, the Topsfield Public Library, and the Ipswich Post Office. Moreover, there were several Salem artists who painted murals for the WPA elsewhere–but not in the city of their birth or residence. Why?

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Umberto Romano, “Mr. Pynchon and the Settling of Springfield”, Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Office Building, formerly the US Post Office, Springfield, Massachusetts, photograph by David Stansbury, and Hollis Holbrook,” John Eliot Speaks to the Natick Indians”, US Post Office, Natick, photograph by Thomas Cortue, both part of the joint Smithsonian National Postal Museum and National Museum of the American Indian exhibition, “Indians at the Post Office: New Deal-Era Murals”; Aiden Lassell Ripley, “Paul Revere’s Ride”, US Post Office, Lexington; and Charles Allen Winter’s “Protection of the Fisheries”,  and “Education” , two of 6 murals in Gloucester City Hall that have been recently restored.

I’ve been wondering about this for a while, but this weekend I was engaging in my semi-regular weekend fantasy-shopping-on-1stdibs session and I came across a study painting by Dunbar Beck for a mural entitled The Return of Timothy Pickering which eventually embellished the interior of the Danvers Post Office, where it remains to this day. And I thought to myself: why the hell was the mural commissioned for DANVERSWhy didn’t it come to Salem? Timothy Pickering is one of the most famous native sons of Salem, his house is here, and his mural should be here too. Danvers is the former Salem Village, and was long part of Salem, but still this mural clearly portrays Salem Town and harbor.

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Dunbar Beck, Study Painting for the Danvers Post Office mural “The Return of Timothy Pickering”, currently available from Renaissance Man Antiques on 1stdibs.

So, why no murals of Salem’s earliest settlements, famous vessels, lively port, sea captains’ mansions, or Witch Trials on the walls of public building downtown?  Well there would have had to be some visual reference to 1692, and that was hardly an uplifting American episode that could be used to raise spirits during the Depression. That’s the curse of 1692, which manifests itself time and time again. Or maybe there was no place for one in Salem’s relatively new Post Office or venerable City Hall. But I for one would like to see a simplistic scene of North America’s first elephant stepping on Salem soil somewhere around town.


Royal Recommendations

As we move into a new era (“reign”?) here in the United States I am quite determined to keep my blog as apolitical as possible but some events and occurrences will no doubt be provocative and/or inspirational. At those times I’ll probably have to delve in, but I will strive for a relatively detached perspective by placing these events and occurrences in as wide an historical and/or cultural context as possible. Here is a first attempt. The other day, our President-elect tweeted his endorsement of L.L. Bean based on a significant contribution on the part of one its family owners, the granddaughter of L.L. Bean himself. I immediately felt and heard the indignation and desire for retribution of seemingly-everyone in my adopted state of Massachusetts focused on one of the largest businesses in my home state of Maine. The employees of this venerable company are probably trembling in their boots: did they ask for this? And are we now entering an era of presidential commercial endorsements akin to the “Royal Warrant of Approval” system in Britain and other European countries which still have monarchies? Imagine the presidential seal of approval where the Royal Arms are below (along with very different entities) provoking an equal measure of purchases and boycotts across the nation.

Royal Warrants of Appointment granted to some of my favorite purveyors: Penhaligon’s (represented by my “Juniper Sling” perfume–which smells a lot like a gin & tonic!), Barbour, and Hatchards Bookshop in London. I’m sure there are a lot more royally-approved goods around the house, including the Twinings tea and Carr’s crackers in my cupboard and the Hunter boots in my closet. Apparently there are approximately 800 Royal Warrant Holders in Great Britain, representing myriad goods and services, everything from movers to jewelers.

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Royal Warrant Holders past and present: Eighteenth-century trade card for Maydwell and Windles, glass manufacturers, British Museum; Carter’s garden seeds, 1897; Pears soap advertisements from 1902 and 1911;  a Daimler ad from the 1930s, and a Colman’s Mustard label from 1887: this company is a particularly proud bearer of the royal arms; Sanderson Fabrics, a warrant holder since 1923, pays homage to Queen Elizabeth II during her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

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The Weekend before Christmas

A very Salem weekend before Christmas highlighted by the Christmas Dance (now called the Holiday Dance) at Hamilton Hall, preceded by pre-parties at gloriously-decorated houses, and followed by shopping downtown on Sunday. I was supposed to wrap all my presents last night but fell asleep on the couch while watching the 1970 version of Scrooge (not as good as the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, but it had to do, yet even a musical could not keep my eyes open; in particular this musical).We had terrible weather on Saturday–sludgy snow/rain–but Sunday was unseasonably warm until a wind whipped up in the later afternoon. Not picture-perfect “Christmas Weather” but lots of people were out and about anyway.

Saturday: the Hall next door before the big dance and showing our ephemeral cover of snow–now gone. I took a few pictures of one very stylishly-decorated Dutch Colonial during one pre-party, but then misplaced my camera–magically it appeared at the very end of the evening when we ended up at the Merchant. No matter, because I can never take good pictures at the Dance. I hope you can make out the wonderful Christmas tree below–lit from within by a lady offering up a gift!

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Sunday: shopping at the Christmas Market at Old Town Hall, Waite & Peirce, Joe’s Fresh Fish Prints, Wicked Good Books, and Modern Millie’s, the always-impressive windows at Emporium 32, and the Poinsettia Tree at the Hawthorne Hotel.

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And some online shopping: LOVE these “Windows of Salem”  hand-drawn digitally-designed cards by EVArtandDesign: you can buy individual cards or a curated-collection with partial proceeds donated to Historic Salem, Inc.

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Imag(in)ing Authors

I don’t think that there is any doubt that we used to glorify authors much more in the past than in the present: while the written word is still alive and well (for now) its producers are not the focal points of our popular culture that Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald once were, except for those long-dead but seemingly eternal celebrity scribes like Will and Jane. There is so much material evidence of author adoration from a century and more ago : portraits, pilgrimages to literary “shrines”, biographies, the various Victorian “Authors” games–first produced right here in Salem— designed to develop literary familiarity and appreciation from an early age.But that is not the literary or the material culture that we live in now, so I was kind of surprised to encounter two “Odes to Authors” prints while I was browsing around the website of Anthropologie, of all places. These are the work of artist Valerie Suter, who is apparently a voracious reader of twentieth-century fiction.

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Odes to Authors Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes by Valerie Suter, available here.

I went over to Suter’s website and found lots more authors: clearly they are her primary inspiration at this point in her life/career. She works in various mediums (including animation and clothing) and portrays her literary subjects in accessible and whimsical ways, occasionally doing something or in each other’s company, like the familiar subjects of A Moveable Feast  and Mark Twain playing pool, below. Lots of color, patterned backgrounds, interesting scale, and an almost complete absence of any formality or pretense bring these authors to life. I really want Josephine Tey, author of one of my very favorite books, The Daughter of Time (1951).

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Paintings by Valerie Suter: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast; John Steinbeck among chrysanthemums, Mark Twain playing pool, E.B. White, Joan Didion & Josephine Tey; Penguin Classic cover of The Daughter of Time. 


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