February 20, 2020

{That Downton Magic}


I recently visited Biltmore Estate, the latest host of DOWNTON ABBEY: THE EXHIBITION…called an “immersive exhibition that offers a chance to relive the story of the beloved television series—complete with set recreations, exclusive multimedia elements, and an up-close look at more than 50 official costumes.”

In the area showcasing the set recreations, in Biltmore’s new Amherst facility, the exhibition provides a fascinating look at the post-Edwardian era in which the popular TV series was set as well as insights into the remarkable events that shaped the world during this time, such as World War I. As a social historian, I especially enjoyed this broader look into the era.

Of course, as a fashion historian, I headed straight to the costume exhibition at a second location in Biltmore Legacy in Antler Hill Village! A display of more than 50 costumes from the series’ six-season run, but also for the first time, costumes from the 2019 Downton Abbey: The Movie were on display—three ensembles worn by the Royal Family. 
It was especially wonderful to see the extraordinary “up close” details of Princess Mary’s evening gown (on the right in photo below)—perhaps now my favorite design by costume designer Anna Mary Scott Robbins! (Wish I taken some up close photos!)

However, it was a bit of a disappointment for me that the labels identifying who wore each costume and for what occasion did not include more details of its design—or its designer! (Downton Abbey had four unique costume designers during the various seasons.) So with that in mind, I’ve shared details below about another favorite Anna Robbins design from the finale of the series which was featured at the exhibition—Lady Edith’s wedding gown! (The script is taken from my talk “Vintage Inspiration: The Brides of Downton Abbey”…enjoy!)
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For Lady Edith’s gown for her 1925 New Year’s Eve wedding to Bertie (who went from being his aristocratic cousin’s land manager to Marquess of Hexham practically overnight), Downton Abbey's season six costume designer, Anna Mary Scott Robbins, created a custom-made gown from lacy vintage “parts.”

The designer said that Edith's dress started out as an original Brussels lace dress she found. Then she merged it with Brussels lace yardage found in vintage fairs with two other pieces that had a different, more light, gauzier weight to it. These were cleverly used to create this transparent sheer drop-down to give the dress more length.  She created the sleeves and the neck out of another piece of vintage lace.

Anna wanted the finished dress to be much more delicate, so they cut away the heavier neckline on the original dress. And with attention to such detail, she even wanted to create a soft transition when you see Edith in the dress….“something almost light as air as it came up on her skin and neck."
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Downton Abbey: The Exhibition runs through April 7, 2020 at Biltmore Estate…unless 'tis held over like it has been at the other venues during its run!


January 3, 2020

{Visiting Another Chapter...}


I'm sharing another chapter, divided into several parts, from my ongoing and long-in-the-making book...tentatively titled The Spiritual Mission of a PrincessEnjoy!

Fear and Loathing of Women 
{Part One}

“Diana appeared at the end of her life as a new and confident workingwoman with a political agenda,” observed Dr. Colleen Denney in her study of Princess Diana as a cultural and feminist phenomenon. And during this same time, as the social and political culture was becoming more egalitarian, Jungian professor Andrew Samuels wrote that “Diana emerged as a new kind of leader...she became the visible aspect of long-standing alternative ideas about leadership, which had been dubbed ‘feminine’ or ‘maternal’.” In his exploration of Diana’s influence, Samuels considered the “changing of relations between politicians who lead and citizens who are led is on any thoughtful contemporary agenda, and the Diana phenomenon may be understood as part of this move.” 

Diana was thrilled when the young Tony Blair and his Labor Party won a landslide victory in May of 1997. “His victory,” wrote Tina Brown, “after eighteen long years of Tory dominance, was welcomed with the euphoria of a new dawn. A young, modernizing, and empathetic Prime Minister and his independent, high-powered wife were pledging to end the corrupt, uptight ways of the crusty old Establishment.” And best of all for the Princess, Blair appreciated and supported her! 

Tina Brown talked about a lunch with Diana in New York following the “wildly successful” Christie’s charity auction of her dresses—just two months before the Princess’ death. Now divorced and free of many of the restrictions of the monarchy, Diana “was so self-processed, so exhilaratingly focused,” Brown shared. “She saw Tony Blair’s election as Prime Minister as a broom that would sweep her old life away and entrust her with a humanitarian mission.” Diana was ready to go to work! (She was just back from Angola with the Red Cross and her famous land-mine walk—her “purest synthesis of courage, calculation, and brilliantly directed media power.”) After that lunch, Brown thought Diana “a woman of substance who had found her future.” Or as Elizabeth Gordon expressed about Diana in When a Princess Dies: “It seemed that in the last months of her life she emerged not only as a ‘woman in her own right’ but also a person with a sense of her own vocation and purpose.”

As a member of the royal family, Diana had been “well-trained” in keeping a busy work schedule (the Queen had more work engagements than days of the year.) If Diana had lived, what kind of “workingwoman” would she have been? Diana was passionate—and fearless—about her work on behalf of land-mine victims and AIDS patients and she knew how to use her star power to get media attention for her causes. Brown wrote in The Diana Chronicles that Tony Blair told her “he had Diana in mind to boost the Africa initiative on overseas aid and debt cancellation that became the Millennium Campaign.” Like many modern, high-profile women who were in leadership positions in business or politics or working with social-awareness campaigns, Diana was used to being criticized, even maligned, and held to a different standard. She also knew of the backlash when a woman stepped on the toes of powerful men or stood up to the patriarchal establishment. But she was enjoying a high-approval rating with the public and the press at this time—and she needed that to thrive, because in Diana’s personal life, as Tina Brown explained, “love, or the lack of it, always dragged her down.” 

Would she have been willing to risk losing the public’s admiration or the possibility of a stable love relationship by taking a stand unpopular with her public? What would Diana have put on the line as scores of working women of her generation did—and like women of today still do? Like the women, and you may be one of them, who put themselves in the line of fire just because their “ambition” and ability and intelligence and vision placed them in an often-edgy position of telling men what to do. 

How would Diana have fared in the post-2016, Trump-led backlash against outspoken women—even pretty ones if they didn’t favor him—who threatened the patriarchy’s privileged lifestyle at the expense of others? Although divorced, but as the mother of a future king, Diana would continue to have restrictions on what she could say and do, and the work she could take on—the Queen would still have been her boss. Nevertheless, I don’t think Diana, with her intense and steely mother-spirit, would have remained quiet amidst such hypocrisy and blatant cruelty in the world of Trumpery. 

Writer and teacher Martha Caldwell wrote about her experience in 2005 attending the first Global Women’s Leadership Conference sponsored by Zayed University, the women’s college in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. She describes a glorious gathering of 750 women from forty different countries—diverse in their heritage, background, skills and challenges—most under the age of 25, all aware of the changing and expanding roles of women and all committed “to lead the larger world into a new vision.” To open the conference, Caldwell reported, a short film was shown “in tribute to important female leaders” featuring images of Indira Ghandi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher and others. Then, “near the end of the film an image of Princess Diana appeared, a photo of her visiting a children’s hospital. Spontaneous applause erupted throughout the room—the only time during the film this happened.” 

For Caldwell, the moment was a surprise—and a mystery. “Why, after so many years, does Diana’s legacy continue to evoke such a passionate response?” The rich connections and shared experiences during this confluence of international women—mothers, executives, teachers, designers, entrepreneurs—clarified her inquiry when a “style of leadership that is particularly female began to emerge from the shared work of the conference.” Martha Caldwell described this vision and what she discovered because “this very feminine style of leadership” that Diana encouraged is such a brilliant model for women today:

A style of leadership…based on a vision of deep care and compassion, a love of the Earth and her people, a style of leadership that strives to express itself in the sustainable nurturance of the whole human family. As much as anyone else in recent history, Diana, with her open spirit, her great personal warmth and charitable gift to humanity exemplifies this very feminine style of leadership. It is because of her archetypal role that she continues to be the Princess of the people.
~~~

TO BE CONTINUED.....


December 22, 2019

{Something Blue and New}

...and something from Vogue: 
The English custom of brides wearing “something blue” on their wedding day dates back to the 1890s and a little old rhyme you may have heard of: “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, a sixpence in your shoe.” The blue bridal token was said to symbolize purity, love, and fidelity.

More than 100 years later, there’s no denying that incorporating a pop of blue is a custom with both meaning and wherewithal, but with 2019’s biggest wedding trend showing a shift toward fresh, fun, laid-back celebrations, it’s only fitting that this time-honored custom would follow suit.


November 23, 2019

{Eco-Friendly Weddings More Important Than Ever}


Attention on planning a “green wedding”—an eco-friendly wedding where the couple tries to decrease the impact of their event on the planet—has been part of wedding planning consciousness for years now. But the stakes have never higher to raise our awareness even more, putting this concern at the front of wedding planning! 

The Knot, the popular wedding magazine and website, has had many articles through the years encouraging brides and grooms to tread lightly; like Tia Albright’s “Your Eco-Friendly Wedding Guide.” And there was a run of guide books a decade or so ago that are still informative: Emily Elizabeth Anderson’s Eco-Chic Weddings from 2007; Wenona Napolitano‘s The Everything Green Wedding Book and Kate Harrison’s The Green Bride Guide, both from 2008; and Mireya Navarro’s Green Wedding: Planning Your Eco-Friendly Celebration from 2009.

Current articles to read: Kenzie Bryant wrote for Vanity Fair, “Are Carbon Offsets the Wedding Registry Gift of the Future?”; from Green Wedding Shoes, a “Sustainable Gift Guide” looking to the holidays; and another way to be more “sustainable” is to wear a dress that is truly re-wearable like a “cool, nonchalant and real” one from designer Karen Walker, as shown in Vogue; and “The Ultimate Guide to Ethical Wedding Dresses” is full of creative ideas!

However, with the current climate crisis, it becomes the responsibility of all of us—whether it’s everyday life or special occasions—to raise our consciousness, educate ourselves, and be aware of what we can do to do no damage!

October 26, 2019

{Winning the Vote}

Thanks to the dynamic College of Human Sciences at Auburn University for recently kicking off the 2020 Suffrage Centennial in the state of Alabama! I was delighted to be the guest speaker at their Grisham Trentham Lecture Series and give my talk, Losing the Corset & Winning the Vote: How Fashion Shaped a Revolution (an audience of students, staff and guests.) Sharing these talks around the country is my way of honoring this aspect of women's heritage and the courage of thousands of women who gave their lives so we have many liberties. 

From Sidney James Nakhjaven, executive director of Auburn's Cary Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy (which includes the Women's Philanthropy Board): “Yesterday was absolutely delightful.  Thank you for a wonderful presentation. Please know how very meaningful your program was....I learned a great deal and have a new boost of energy and curiosity around all things women.”

October 5, 2019

{The Glorious Renée Harris}


Enjoy this reprint of my article on Confluence Daily about the first woman Broadway producer, Renée Harris, and the new book about her life by Randy Bryan Bigham and Gregg Jasper.

Don't you love learning about women trailblazers of history?



What a Dame! The Glorious Renée Harris

I first “met” Renée Harris when researching for “Glamour Onboard the Titanic,” a talk I was to give at the Biltmore in Asheville, NC, a few years ago during their costume exhibition. Renée and her husband Harry, a famously successful Broadway producer, were passengers on the RMS Titanic returning home to New York City in 1912 from a working holiday abroad. She made it; he, like many other men, went down with the ship.

During my research, I became curious about the lives of a number of women after they survived the Titanic disaster. It took a lot of courage and determination to live through such an ordeal—and they would need that tenacity in the changing world culture. The early years of the 20th century were a transformative time, especially for women who, in the United States, were revving up the nearly-seven-decades-long campaign for the vote, to continue moving their lives out of the “domestic sphere” into the “public sphere”—and the patriarchal powers-that-be were pushing back!

What had women, like Renée Harris, undertaken in this brave new world once they arrived home? I later wrote about some of these trailblazing women, but the information was often limited since history tends to ignore or gloss over a woman’s story. Therefore, I was delighted to learn that my historian friend Randy Bryan Bigham had co-authored, with Gregg Jasper, also a historian and collector, a first-of-its-kind biography of Renée—Broadway Dame: The Life and Times of Mrs. Henry B. Harris. And what a great “dame” she was!

Once back home in New York City, the vibrant and “unsinkable” Renée Harris, while grieving her beloved husband, not only took on his business enterprises—when the “Harris theatrical empire was on the brink of bankruptcy”—she also had to take on an unwelcoming man’s world! However, she had the right combination of good humor, hutzpah, business savvy, and the wisdom to listen to her intuitive vibes to not only win over the guys (most of the time), but also to become a successful and innovative owner and manager of the elegant Hudson Theater. Indeed, Broadway’s first woman producer!

Glamorous and spirited—"one of the great personalities of the Jazz Age”—Renée produced and managed 200 plays (some on controversial social topics) and musicals (including the “Hot Chocolates” revue with a young Louis Armstrong playing trumpet) during her 20-year run. She lived life abundantly, enjoying the wealth of her success—yearly trips to Europe, a home and yacht in Palm Beach, lavish entertaining, and a fabulous wardrobe of designer hats and furs. But she was also an active supporter of better working conditions and increased salaries for the performers and behind-the-scene workers—often going up against her male counterparts to champion workers’ rights.  

Renée (who added that second “e” to her name just because she thought it had more élan!) had feminist views but didn’t need a label in order to speak and act true to her egalitarian convictions. And she was wise enough to recognize her secret weapon: she trusted in, as she said, the “female perspective” and a woman’s “quick intuition.” “A woman can do it as well as a man,” Renée shared in an interview about producing Broadway plays. “A woman does not go about this the same way that a man does, but the results are the same. Sometimes I think they’re better. A woman brings to the stage a woman’s point of view. After all, it is what in the long run pleases a woman that makes a show a success.” (You see why I love her!)

Randy and Gregg’s biography is full of marvelous stories and never-before-published photographs gathered from various archives—including Gregg’s own collection of Broadway memorabilia. The book’s many images set the tone for this exciting, groundbreaking age in history and since Gregg knew Renée in her later years, his experiences add an intimate and personal quality to the narrative.

The co-authors tell the story of a woman who found her confident voice—encouraged by the memory of a husband’s love and faith in her (“I never take an important step without consulting Renée,” Harry told a friend only months before his death on the Titanic. “If anything happened to me, she could take over the reins.”); a woman who was unafraid to put her social conscience on the line and on the stage; and who, when she lost it all soon after the stock market crash in 1929, kept her resourcefulness, optimism and light-heartedness, continuing to enjoy life and live 93 legendary years!

Thank you, Randy and Gregg, for an inspirational and entertaining book about a strong, glorious woman that history almost forgot until you two were determined to tell her full story. ~

Broadway Dame: The Life and Times of Mrs. Henry B. Harris by Randy Bryan Bigham and Gregg Jasper available at Lulu.com

September 1, 2019

{The Story of a Blue Dress}

In celebration of the Suffrage Centennial in the United States (one-hundred years after Congress passed the 19th Amendment in June 1919 and when it was ratified in August 1920, giving women the vote), I'm giving a series of fashion-related presentations over the next year. This is one of the stories I shared in my talk “Dressed to Protest: What Women Wore to the Revolution” at the kick-off event in Sylva, North Carolina.

The Story of a Blue Dress
At last the preposterous dream of seventy years began to be realized,” wrote Eileen Tannich Gose and Kathy Wiederstein DeHerrera in Reflecting Freedom: How Fashion Mirrored the Struggle for Women’s Rights. 
In January 1918, Jeanette Rankin from Montana (the first and only woman in Congress) introduced the suffrage-granting Anthony Amendment (named after Susan B. Anthony who had first introduced it in 1878) in the House of Representatives where it passed the needed two-thirds majority by a single vote.


Thrilled at the 19th amendment passing in the House, National American Women’s Suffrage Association president Carrie Chapman Catt was certain that congressional victory, after 40 exasperating years, was near,” Elaine Weiss explained in The Woman's Hour. Carrie’s enthusiasm overpowered her usual patient pragmatism, as well as the current wartime austerity, and she ordered a new silk dress—her “ratification dress”to wear as she campaigned through the states, fashioning it in her favorite color—sapphire blue.

However, the ratification dress hung in Carrie’s closet for a full year-and-a-half as the Senate dithered and filibustered and twice more voted down the amendment. When she received the phone call in early June of 1919 that the amendment finally squeaked through, Carrie first broke into a wild dance, stomping all over her house, whooping and singing,” then she calmly went to work, putting her ratification plans into motion.

“It was finally time to put on the blue dress, but before she could, it needed to be remodeled and shortened by a seamstress, as fashion styles had changed so rapidly in the meantime, continued Weiss. Though the dress had hung in her closet for an infuriating 18 months, Carrie Catt eventually put it to good use”—in its more stylish silhouette—“as she blazed through the states, chasing the thirty-six required legislative ratifications.” And, after more than a year traveling over the country, she wore it once more in the last state to vote—hot, stifling Tennessee in August of 1920 (and probably wearing it with one of those new-fangled girdles!)


But Carrie was to wear the dress again on August 27—the day after the amendment was signed into law—during the glorious celebratory parade in New York City honoring women’s newly-won suffrage. She stood in the back of an open car to salute the cheering crowd, tall and proud, her hat tilted to one side, the other arm holding the gigantic bouquet of blue delphiniums (her favorite flower) and suffrage-yellow chrysanthemums, where “she seemed at once the victorious general and the beloved queen,” Weiss described.

The next day, when Carrie finally returned home to Juniper Ledge in New York, she sat at her desk and, looking out at her garden, wrote “a poignant charge to the women voters of the nation”:

The vote is the emblem of your equality, women of America, the guaranty of your liberty. That vote of yours has cost millions of dollars and the lives of thousands of women. Women have suffered agony of soul which you never can comprehend, that you and your daughters might inherit political freedom. That vote has been costly. Prize it!

The vote is a power, a weapon of offense and defense, a prayer. Use it intelligently, conscientiously, prayerfully. Progress is calling to you to make no pause. Act! ~


[Sources: Eileen Tannich Gose and Kathy Wiederstein DeHerrera from Reflecting Freedom: How Fashion Mirrored the Struggle for Women’s Rights and Elaine Weiss from The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.]