Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Language of Fans

Fans were an indispensable article of dress from the 18th century onward. Not only did they cool the wearer, who was burdened by heavy garments after a heated dance, but they became the means of transmitting clandestine messages. It would be too bold to actually walk up to someone of the opposite sex and say very personal things, but a flick of the fan would do the job. Since it was common for gentlemen to carry hand fans as well, quite a conversation, flirtation, or argument could be carried on across a crowded room. Using a wide variety of movements, the fan transmitted symbolic language, and even an alphabetic code. Of course, all these coded messages were about male/female relationships, but really, don't you want some secret signs to say things you'd never say out loud? I knew a couple who had a few personal gestures they'd use; for instance, at a dull gathering, tugging on the right earlobe meant "Let's leave". Our family has a hand sign for "Who cares?", which is apparently a variation of the West Side Crips gang sign, but since we do it palm forward and it predates the gang sign, we think of them as sissy posers.

Poor Dolly and Minerva are beginning to despair about their social connections. Father hosts a tea for some Fellows of the Antiquarian Society of London, where he is a major force in their publication Vetusta Monumenta. While Father spouts forth on the quality of engravings, Minerva and Dolly are driven to express their boredom through fan signs of their own devising.

I was so happy to find this lovely Tea Table from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, on The Old Design Shop blog. The pictures there are sooo nice and beautifully scanned, so why not visit?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Keeping Up With New Dances

The first decades of the 1800s saw increasing departure from the formal dance routines of the earlier century and the introduction of livelier and more intricate routines. Many manuals were published to educate dancers in new and old steps. Thomas Wilson, who wrote several dancing manuals, created an overwhelming diagram of possible Quadrille formations, to illustrate one of his books. This link will take you to several interesting original manuals.

One of the concerns with dancing was that a lady should not dance with anyone before a proper introduction. This did not mean, "Hi, I'm Josh. Wanna dance?". A mutual acquaintance must formally introduce a lady to the gentleman. This posed a problem during country dances and quadrilles, as an introduced couple would be continually changing partners during the course of the dance, and therefore, dancing with who knows who. Or whom.

The waltz was introduced in England during Regency times, much to the confusion and dismay of some. While other dances had exuberant moves and physical contact between the sexes, the waltz outdid them all. One couple danced exclusively with each other, with both arms in contact for a whole dance set --imagine the possible outcomes! Despite the naysayers, the waltz was very popular and three-quarter time ruled for the rest of the century. Other lively couple dances were the mazurka, which was usually danced by couples in quadrille formation, the galop, and the polka. (I do hope you watched that last link!) All of these were descended from European folk dances.

Especially toward the mid-1800s, etiquette and decorum at dances was taken very seriously. To avoid awkward scenes, men who wished to dance with a certain lady requested a dance later in the evening. She would then write his name on her dance card, which was usually marked with a list of the type of dance music that would be played. Often the gentleman would request her honor of dancing a waltz, or whatever dance he preferred. When that set approached, he would then approach the lady.

I'm finding it difficult to locate decent pictures of men's fashion from Regency era publications. If the clothing is fine, the faces are usually just awful. Ackermann's women are so lovely, I can't bear to pair them with poorly-drawn men! What I've done with some is to take the bodies and give them new heads, usually from my file of handsome men in daguerreotypes. Those of you who visit My Daguerreotype Boyfriend know that good-looking men weren't invented yesterday. Well, Minerva meets a handsome stranger who is living just a bit in the future. Who is he? Hint: He's got a famous dad and looks absolutely nothing like him.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Womanly Skills: Dancing

What woman doesn't love to dance? Even in my own distant youth, it was considered important to know how to do the basic ballroom dances, so at 13, I was signed up by my mother to take dancing lessons. It was tons of fun learning the steps to the waltz, polka, foxtrot, two step, and other standbys, including some courtly and folk dances. Just for the fun of it, I, being one of the tallest in the class, would deliberately pair up with a male friend who was a "little person". I remember the teacher calling for everyone to choose a partner, adding, "Billy and Carol may NOT dance together!". What larks!

In Regency times, dances were the major opportunity to meet people, especially people of the opposite sex, and have one's moves be observed. I've observed a lot of moves in Austen movies and various YouTube videos, and really wonder if everyone danced in such a listless and mechanical fashion. I live in New England, where contra dancing is very popular. Contra dances, or country dances, are performed in long lines, usually involving a group of two neighboring couples who interact and then gradually work up the line, so the "bottom" couple ends up at the top of the line, having danced with everyone else in the line. A band plays and a caller announces each movement. Often, before officially dancing, the caller guides the dancers through a practice session, so the actual dance goes smoothly. Contra dances are lively, fast, and noisy, and lots of fun. However, if you exchange "fiddlers" for "violinists" and slow the whole thing down to an almost sleep-walking speed, you have Regency dancing like this.  ((Yawn...)) I suspect people actually danced like this. Certainly, this was a gathering of country folk, but I can't imagine the ton enjoying the zombie dances. Contemporary pictures show women kicking up their heels and men wiping sweat from their brows.

Almack's Assembly Rooms was an social club in London, operating from 1765 to 1871. While most social events were held in private homes, Almack's gave people of the upper crust an opportunity to mingle without special invitations. Of course, one had to be approved by the committee, which was made up of extremely influential Lady Patronesses. Those who were approved were awarded vouchers for the season, and more importantly, the acceptance of the social set; those who were not, were excluded. More devastating was the revocation of one's voucher, the news of which would bar one from Society in general. Fortunately, for Dolly and Minerva, they have a voucher and are looking forward to making advantageous connections.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Womanly Skills: Needlework

Well, what's a woman to do with all those spare hours, but feather her nest and trim her bonnets? Look at those Jane Austen movies where a visitor arrives unexpectedly and the ladies of the house quickly smooth themselves down and snatch up some embroidery so it looks as if they'd just been caught during a quiet moment perched on the divan. It just wouldn't do to have people see you working. Handwork shows that a woman has time, patience, and a desire to make the world a more beautiful place. Besides, women are better at 'fiddly work', as Princess Diana once said to women factory workers.

A cousin once complimented an outfit I was wearing, and I told her that I had made it myself. "Wow! You're really good at sewing," she replied. "I'm really good at buying nice clothes". That's how Dolly and Minerva see it. Women in those days had their clothing made by seamstresses, as ready-to-wear was not available. Gowns were often embroidered with whitework or broderie anglaise, what we would recognize on eyelet trimming today, but most often the fabric would be purchased from women who did that sort of work as a living. Dolly and Minerva could go to Mr. Ackermann's shop, or one he recommends, buy all the lovely fabrics and trims they needed, and then visit the dressmaker, armed with one of Mr. Ackermann's fashion plates. As the simplicity of the first decade of the 19th century gave way to more and more ornamentation, women had to focus on trims and appliqué, often moving them from one garment to another.

A wonderful movie is The Heiress, starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, based on Henry James' novel Washington Square. Catherine Sloper, a plain, shy, and awkward heiress meets a handsome man who, inexplicably to her, showers her with attention. Her unfeeling father believes the young man is only after her money, but she is convinced that he truly loves her. Her father decides to leave her penniless if she marries this opportunist, which makes no difference to her. Will it make a difference to Morris? There is an awful scene when Catherine tries of convince her father that Morris loves her for herself. The father retorts with insults about her qualities, adding, "I've known you all your life and I have never known you to learn anything. With one exception, my dear, you embroider neatly."

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Classical Past and Present

The years around 1800 were times of avid interest in the classical cultures of ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt. Archaeological discoveries had made people aware of the richness of these civilizations, and fortunately, inspired them to preserve and protect these finds. The former Roman Empire was still littered with the ruins of ancient structures, so it was no surprise to anyone that farmers or ditch diggers would unearth even more buildings or artifacts. In the late 18th century, a concerted effort was made to excavate the former Roman resort city of Pompeii, and there was great excitement over the remains of probably the best-preserved Roman settlement in existence. As excavation continues there, and in the neighboring town of Herculaneum, to this day, we are given a somewhat unnerving time-capsule of life in the first-century Roman Empire and of the tragedy that struck Pompeii's residents. In 1799, a soldier in Napoleon's army in Egypt uncovered a large, flat stone, or stele, covered with inscriptions. Dubbed the Rosetta Stone, it was discovered to have the same inscription repeated in three languages: Egyptian hieroglyphic, Egyptian demotic text, and ancient Greek. Its value was immediately recognized and scholars set to work decoding the symbols, starting from what they knew. The result was the first decoding of the hieroglyphic symbols by Jean-François Champollion in 1822. Archaelogy Fever gripped the western world, leading to discoveries that would change the way Europeans thought about life in ancient times. It also led to many serious confrontations between governments which clashed over possession of important artifacts.

Dolly and Minerva attend a lecture on the recent discovery of the Venus de Milo in 1820. There has been much made of the Greek recognition of certain ratios equaling visual perfection, and although armless Aphrodite might seem a bit solid, she is, indeed, perfect.

I've dubbed the older man 'Linear B. Chadwick', after John Chadwick, who, along with Michael 
Ventris, decoded the 'Linear B' script, the oldest known form of ancient Greek.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Womanly Skills: A Foreign Language

Just as American school system promotes the idea that having a smattering of a foreign language is a necessity for every citizen, so were well-off women in the 18th and 19th centuries expected to be able to read, write, and converse in another tongue. It allowed them to read foreign literature and converse with visitors from abroad. Most women studied French, as I did, because it was the language of the arts. Despite years in the classroom, my French is pretty miserable, due to lack of actual real-life exposure.  It has stood me in good stead in stock-piling a large mental list of Latin root words, reading street signs in Quebec and much of Canada, and a fun session assisting Khmer carpenters work up a supply list for a new pavilion they were constructing at my old school in Cambodia.

Dolly and Minerva's cousin Geneviève learned French and see how it opened doors for her! Who wouldn't want to hob-nob with Sir Percy Blakeney, the famed Scarlet Pimpernel, and listen first-hand to his thrilling tales of how heSir Andrew Ffoulkes, and the other members of The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, rescued innocent victims of the French Revolution. Give Sir Percy a few glasses of wine and he'll likely have his guests rolling on the floor laughing with his famous "They Seek Him Here" ditty. Geneviève gets to meet all sorts of interesting people with impeccable manners and a most fastidious sense of fashion. What's more, many of them have handsome sons.

On the other hand, Dolly and Minerva have been subjected to a rigorous study of Latin and Greek, due to the interests of Father, an enthusiastic member of the Society of Antiquaries of London. It has become increasingly apparent to the girls that anyone likely to converse with them in those languages has been dead for centuries, if not millennia. 

Translation: Father: Honey, I'm home!
                     Mother: Hello, James. What's new?
                     Dolly: Whatever is said in Latin sounds more profound.
                     Minerva: As if!
                     Dolly: Everyone's doing it!
                     Minerva: Get a life!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Dolly & Minerva Show Off

No vaguely historical ramblings today. Dolly and Minerva get together with their cousins to show off their musical skills.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Womanly skills: Music

My mother believed that every child should have two years of music lessons, no matter how tone-deaf, arythmical, or fumble-fingered they were. If such was found to be the case, at least the child would be able to read music and be able to recognize popular tunes of the great masters. Of course, my mother was trained in opera-singing at Juilliard School of Music, so she never once thought her own children would be among that group. None of us inherited her depth of giftedness, but the four of us are all musical in our own ways. How many children were woken up in the morning to "The sun is a-shining to welcome the day: Heigh-ho! Come to the fair"? One song I taught my children when they were little tots was Purcell's "Nymphs and Shepherds", a great hit of the year 1692. My youngest, Laura, was convinced that "Flora's holiday" was actually "Laura's holiday" and would call out, "Let's sing my holiday!". 

It was so fun when the two girls began singing lessons in school, using the old standby, Schirmer's Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias of the 17th and 18th Centuries. What beautiful songs! My first recital song was 'Già il sole dal Gange' by Scarlatti, a common early singing-lesson number. I combed YouTube for a performance that actually sounded like me. Although the sound is poor on my link, this one was a good match. 

There's not a generation of young people who haven't heard their parents complain about "modern music" and reminisce fondly of the music of their day, which their own parents complained about. My grandmother was said to shake her head over my uncle who was a jazz musician in the bebop style. But then, she'd laugh about her father griping, "What's all this "everybody's doin' it, doin' the Turkey Trot"? It was the big hit of 1912!

Being able to play an instrument or sing was far more important in the past than it is today, as there were no mechanical entertainment devices. Evenings were far more pleasant with a musical instrument in the home, and every party depended on a group of musicians to provide dance tunes. In the 1800's "parlour music" was a popular trend. It was music for light entertainment in intimate gatherings, as the name implies, often wistful romantic songs, or jolly, humorous numbers. Thomas Moore, an Irish poet,songwriter, and author, had a great following and is today considered to Ireland what Robert Burns is to Scotland. His songs The Minstrel Boy, The Last Rose of Summer, Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms, and Oft In the Stilly Night, are still well-known. 

I have to add Robert Burns' words to the lovely song My Luve's Like A Red, Red Rose, here sung by Kenneth McKellar. I remember my mother listening to this on the radio, with tears flowing down her cheeks, saying, 'Oh, it's a wonderful thing to be Scottish!'.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Gothic Romance and Unlikely Endings

Charlotte Brontë, having been a mousy little governess for many years, knew well the limitations of women in her situation. Each passing year, and her social isolation, lowered her chances of meeting a marriage partner. With more than a rudimentary education, a vocation that encouraged the attainment of knowledge and critical thinking, and the psychological ability to live independently, she was not likely to find someone who would appreciate her inner self enough to dismiss all her social shortcomings. But in her imagination, anything was possible. Just think of all the books that have been written since Jane Eyre, in which an ordinary girl like you or me finds herself at an impressively dark and brooding castle or manor house, presided over by an equally dark and brooding (and invariably attractive) man, and, after a series of nerve-wracking adventures, finds that this man wants only her. His distant, moody arrogance masked a lonely heart in which only she had found a way to set up home. (Sigh!) As a teenager, my favorite author of that genre was Victoria Holt, which was one of the many pen names of Eleanor Hibbert. She was also Jean Plaidy and Philippa Carr, writing historical fiction.

Here we have Dolly and Minerva attending a party at Thornfield, Mr. Rochester's home. Edward and Jane are married, much to the chagrin of Blanche Ingram. Of course, Thornfield, at that point was burned and abandoned, and Edward was blind and blighted by scandal. Jane could have only made a life with him in that state; never as mistress of Thornfield.

Here's a factoid: Did you know that Charlotte Brontë was about 4'9" or 4'10" in height? Even in those days, she was considered exceptionally small. Her sister Emily was about 5'6".

Sources: room (Cooper-Hewitt Collection), ladies, Mr. Rochester, naughty couple, man in blue, man in black.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What Every Woman Ought To Know

Back in 6th Grade (way back), our teacher was talking about life for girls in colonial America. Girls were encouraged to learn the"Three R's", Reading, Writing, and 'Rithmatic, and the rest was at-home training for their future lives as homemakers and wives of farmers, laborers, or artisans. If a family was well-off, a girl might have a tutor or governess at home and continue on at a school for young ladies. There, she would study literature, geography, and history. She would learn to speak French reasonably well, to play an instrument or sing, embroider, paint pictures, and dance. Most importantly, she would learn deportment: how a lady should behave. As my teacher was telling us this, my mind wandered (as it usually did), putting myself into that situation. What bliss! What fulfillment! Imagine, eleven-year-old Me, spending all your days doing exactly what you love doing! 

Then (crash back to earth), I realized that she was describing how limited and unfair life was to females of those times. Today, we have choices and opportunities! Alright, I am happy for girls who want to be doctors, lawyers, scientists, and heads of state. But does that mean I can't go to Miss Standstraight's School for Young Ladies and not be considered a sad commentary on the the quality of education for females of today? It was 1963, and the times, they were a-changin'. One thing hasn't changed. If your earning capacity is based on the above skills, you are going to need a tall, dark, second income, as a single friend of mine once commented.

Here we begin the education of Dolly and Minerva. A governess was employed to live in their home and instruct the girls. Being a governess was one of the few respectable opportunities for a woman of good background who found herself with some education and no husband. It was often a lonely life, as she was ranked below the family she worked for, but above the servants, and, therefore, unable to socialize with either group. I'm sure you recognize Jane Eyre. I was in 8th Grade when I read (ate up) this book. It was the 1943 edition with the illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg that captured perfectly the dark agony of the story. Do you remember little Adèle, Jane's pupil? Jane spoke of her so dismissively, as a little "poppet", as the child's mother had taught her to be silly and vain, only thinking of gifts and new dresses. Poor Adèle! I think she turned out alright.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Acceptable Sports For Females #5: Walking

Who doesn't enjoy a good brisk walk or a leisurely stroll through an interesting landscape? Many of Ackermann's fashion illustrations were of "walking" or "promenade" dresses. Women needed comfortable outfits, suited to the season, in which they could explore some slightly rugged terrain or simply amble through a park, chatting with friends they met along the way or bringing the children out for a bit of fresh air.  Walks along the beach were especially popular, as the more privileged set took holidays at seaside resorts, where the salt air was reputed to strengthen one against the constant threat of lung ailments. Jane Austen thoroughly enjoyed her visits to the sea and incorporated her enthusiasm into her novels.
        "Nobody could catch cold by the sea; nobody wanted appetite by the sea; nobody wanted 
        spirits; nobody wanted strength. Sea air was healing, softening, relaxing — fortifying and 
         bracing — seemingly just as was wanted — sometimes one, sometimes the other. If the 
         sea breeze failed, the seabath was the certain corrective; and where bathing disagreed, 
         the sea air alone was evidently designed by nature for the cure.” 
                                                                                       ― Jane Austen, Sanditon

As Britain is an island nation, every scenic cove was transformed into some level of tourist get-away, from the opulence of Brighton with its Royal Pavilion to quaint villages on the coasts of Cornwall, where pirates and smugglers had so recently hidden their illegal cargoes. When I think of women walking along the seashores, my mind always goes to Gilbert and Sullivan's hilarious operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, in which the eight daughters of the Major-General romp over the rocky cliffs and encounter the most absurd pirates ever to terrorize the English coast. The 1983 movie, with Kevin Kline playing the best Pirate King ever, is one of my favorite films, and I am glad to see that it is now out on DVD. Linda Ronstadt's lovely voice won over the purists, Rex Smith is an admirable Frederick, and Angela Lansbury holds her own as the aged Ruth. The "Climbing Over Rocky Mountains" scene is delightful, with its comic posing.

Sources: Some old postcard of Cornwall; girls, Ackermann's Repository.