Sunday, October 30, 2011

Another Ballgown from the 1890s

Check out the characteristic features of an 1890s ballgown. First, the lily-shaped skirt. This is usually cut with trapezoid shaped pieces in the front and sides, and with a rectangular shaped piece in back. This shaping means that in front the skirt nips in at the waist, skims over the hips, and angles out to a wide hem. The rectangular back means that there is plenty of fabric to pleat or gather at the back of the waist, and plenty of fabric to swing out when one dances. A properly cut skirt adds so much to the look and feel of late nineteenth century dances.


The bodice is constructed with a solid and symmetrical base, but then the outer fabric is draped and pleated in an asymmetrical way that completely disguises the ordinary foundation, to the point where you can't even see the fastenings. The big sleeves are also artfully arranged with ribbon loops and gauze puffs. This dress is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Monday, October 17, 2011

How the German Got Its Name

The German Cotillion is a sort of dance party with games. It was done in American from the 1840s through the end of the century, but it got wildly popular in the years just after the Civil War.

There are two ways to spell it: Cotillon or Cotillion. There are also two ways to pronounce it. In French, it's pronounced, coat-EE-own, and in English, COAT-ill-yon. They seem pretty interchangeable in the mid-nineteenth century.

First, here is a bit from Howe, which talks about the name and spelling, At this point, Howe is not talking about the party games version of a cotillion:

COTILLIONS OR COTILLONS* ARE OF ENGLISH ORIGIN, And were first danced by four persons standing as the first four now do, in the set; two more couples were afterwards added and formed the side couples; thus the English Cotillion and the French Quadrilles are now formed precisely alike, and it is equally proper to call the dance by either name.

*Noah Webster, spells the word both ways. The word Cotillion was derived from the English, and the word Cotillon from the French.    (Elias Howe, Howe's Complete Ball-Room Hand Book, Boston: Ditson &; Co., c1858 p. 24.)

Here is a quote from Coulon, an English dancing master, which discusses the fact that the name gets recycled for another dance, and also mentions the German origin of the new dance:

The Cotillon is a dance that was known upwards of fifty years ago. It was danced by eight persons, like the French Quadrille, which, perhaps, owes its derivation to it. The new Cotillon was introduced in Germany and Russia a few years ago, but it bears no resemblance whatever to the old or original Cotillon. It is danced in Germany with the Waltz step, and recently in Russia it has been introduced with the Mazurka step.  (Eugene Coulon, Coulon's Hand-Book, London:1860? p. 5.)

And here, a much later American dance manual is definitely talking about the party games version of the dance and makes the name change to "The German" clear:

This dance was introduced in New York about the year 1844. At that time the quadrille was the fashionable dance, but was known as the cotillion. To make a distinction between that and this dance, which was known in Europe by the same name, this was called the "German Cotillion;" gradually the word cotillion was dropped, the dance becoming simply "The German."  (Allen Dodworth, Dancing and its relations to education and social life, New & enl. ed., New York, London, Harper & Brothers, 1900. p. 145.)

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Ballgown from the 1890s


I've been quite involved with events set in the 1860s lately, but I don't want to forget another period of the nineteenth century that I love.

Here is a ballgown from the Metropolitan Museum of Art which they date to 1896. I think it demonstrates some of the distinctive features that were popular in the early-mid 1890s (from about 1892 to 1896.) The first things you notice are the skirt and sleeves. The trumpet- or lily-shaped skirt smooths over the hips and flares out to the hem. Hems in these gowns are usually reinforced with 8 to 10 inches of stiff canvas or horsehair, which provides the flared shape.Sleeves are quite small before and after these years, but they seem to reach the size of small watermelons in about 1893.

Notice the body skimming bodice. It does not end at the natural waist as an 1860s bodice would. Instead, it continues an inch or two below the natural waist. The V neckline in front and especially the V neckline in back are really classic. The back is laced, which is a nice touch, reminiscent of the back lacing of early 1860s formal dresses.

I would choose a dress without a train for a night of serious dancing, but most of the well-preserved museum gowns from this period have trains. I suspect that women of the period would have called them dinner gowns, or reception gowns and would save the term ball gown for a dress without a train, but I haven't seen that distinction spelled out in period sources.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Croton Poole Leads the German - Part II


Here is Croton Poole, in his element as the leader of a German Cotillion. The flag figure sounds lovely, with brightly colored silk flags fluttering around.

What mazes he threaded, what intricacies he invented that evening! People, without knowing how, or why, or wherefore, found themselves suddenly forming wreaths of flowers and arabesque patterns upon the floor, from which some simple evolution was to evolve them. 

Then there were figures in which pretty bright-colored flags floated about the room, in the course of being distributed to the various dancers. The lady held one set, the gentleman the other, and each set corresponded in patterns and numbers to the other. The lady gave her flags to the gentlemen, and the gentleman gave his flags to the ladies, and then each gentleman rushed about eagerly to find the lady who held the flag corresponding to his, and having found her, they both whirled off in a wild waltz or a determined polka.

Throughout this wonderful performance, of which he was the director-in-chief, Croton Poole maintained a splendid self-possession. Nothing seemed to disturb the equanimity of his temper. 

There was a dogged Englishman, who did not understand the dance, and who, true to his national prejudices, would hold on when he was told to let go, and let go when he was told to hold on, and eventually involved himself in such a maze of difficulties, that the only way he had left to get out of them was to stand perfectly still, in the centre of the room, and collect his scattered senses; even over him Croton Poole seemed to possess some magical influence, for I saw him absolutely assist in " the basket-figure" without a blunder before I went away. (Harper's New Monthly Magazine, July 1855 p. 194.)

Here are directions for the Flag figure from Laurence De Garmo Brooks:

77.LES DRAPEAUX (THE FLAGS.)

It is necessary in this figure to have in readiness at least five or six duplicate sets of small flags of various designs. These flags are usually twelve inches by nine, attached to a small staff about two feet long. The leader takes a flag of each pattern, and his lady the duplicates. They then perform a Tour de Valse; after which the leader presents his flags to five or six ladies, and his lady presents her flags to as many gentlemen. All those furnished with flags now stand up and seek the owners of the corresponding ones, and finish with a Tour de Valse, waving the flags as they dance. (L. De G. Brookes, Brookes on modern dancing, New York, 1867 p.84)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Croton Poole Leads the German - Part I

Here is a wonderful description of a German in 1855. The story it appears in is called "The Beauty" and it tells of the sad fate of a beautiful rich girl whose fancy education has not prepared her succeed in life after her father loses all his money. Let's not read to the sad end, but linger on this description of a beautiful ball.

You will remember that the German is a set of party games and dancing. It requires a leader, and it is clear from the dance manuals that there is no such thing as a professional leader for the German. The hostess asks a young man with an outgoing manner and ingenious mind to lead the games.

A typical ball would begin around 9 pm with dancing. There would be a supper at midnight and then the second half of the dancing afterwards. Just after supper would be a logical time for the oldest and  the very youngest guests to go home to bed. That leaves the most enthusiastic dancers to stay and dance into the wee hours of the morning.

The German is set up with a ring of chairs and space for dancing inside the ring. The couples who will participate take seats.They stand up to waltz around the room and then sit again. Various games are announced and people are chosen to get up and take part. Then, the waltz around the room begins again.

It is necessary to have a partner if you want to join in, but once the German begins there are plenty of games that allow you to dance with a variety of partners. This is one reason that some ladies refused to dance the German. If there is a gentleman in the German to whom you object, you really can't join in and run the risk of getting him as a partner.

The ball was a splendid one. Flowers seemed to have been rained over the rooms. The soft light of the myriads of wax tapers lent a charm even to the most tender complexions; and splendid silk brocades, and innocent tarletane skirts, rustled against each other in the crowded rooms with a voluptuous sound.

"The German" commenced at one o'clock, and then it was that Croton Poole appeared in all his glory. Up to this period he had condescended to few dances. His waltz was languid ; his polka redowa indolent. In the intervals, he leaned against the scagliola pillars, and watched Constance, who never seemed to tire, swimming through the rooms. 

But when that universal movement began; when that bringing of chairs down from unknown and mysterious corners in the fourth story commenced; when the bad male dancers began to look hot and anxious in the search for partners; when the plain young ladies, who had not been asked, assumed an expression utterly condemnatory of dancing, indicating that if they had a thousand offers of partners they would not so condescend; in short, when all quiet non-dancing people were ruthlessly routed out of their corners in order to make room for the performers, and the German cotillion reigned triumphant, then it was that Croton Poole awoke from his lethargy, and became the life and soul of the revel.

He instantly enthroned himself upon a dictatorial eminence, and ruled every thing. He made people sit closer, whether they would or no, in order to form the circle. He ordered the musicians what to play, and even bearded the immortal Kammerer himself. Then, seizing the fairy-like Constance, he whirled her for a few turns round the room, and proceeded to lead the first figure of The German. (Harper's New Monthly Magazine, July 1855 p. 194.)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Sprung Floor

We'll be having a ball in Hamilton Hall, Salem, MA in two weeks. The hall was built in 1805 by five Salem investors and it was intended as a social gathering place. It was named after Alexander Hamilton, a dashing and less obvious choice than George Washington might have been.


One of the spectacular features of the hall is the sprung floor in the ballroom. Constructing the floor involved clever crossbracing of wood so that the floor has the ability to give under the dancers' feet. The guides on the tour trolleys that run up and down Chestnut street claim that the floor is held up by iron springs, but you should not believe them.

Here is a reminiscence of a different hall, in Boston:
Washington Hall, though a spacious one, was not highly decorated, but it possessed what was a special desideratum in those days, the best spring floor that ever rose and fell beneath the feet. (Sarah Anna Emery, My generation, Newburyport: Sargent, 1893. p. 91.)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Plaid Ballgown from 1859

A friend is going to her first ball, and she asked whether she could wear a plaid ballgown. The simple answer is yes. Here is a gown from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The complicated answer is yes, if she can find a pretty plaid in a silk or silk-like fabric and if her husband can sew it in time. (Three cheers for husbands who sew!)


Please notice an interesting detail about working with plaid. The skirt is very slightly longer in the back than in the front, but the hem follows the plaid perfectly. If you are making a plaid (or any other pattern) skirt for the mid-nineteenth century, you should cut the hem straight across, and shape the top of the skirt. Once the fabric is gathered into the top, the differences in pattern will be much less noticeable than they would be at the bottom.