Dressing Down: Private Life and the Dressing Gown, 1890-1950
Costumes are some of the most culturally insightful pieces in museum collections, and few garments offer a window into private life and the constructs of femininity like the dressing gown. These examples from the Preservation Society's collection, presented alongside complementary fine and decorative arts pieces, illustrate the changing history of fashion and the fluid concepts of modesty, comfort, and status in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. Through sweeping social change, American women in general and Newport women in particular lived their most private lives -- in their roles as wives, mothers, social leaders, and artists -- in their dressing gowns.
Although the dressing gown (also known as the morning gown, tea gown, wrapper, or peignoir) was introduced in the 18th century as a reprieve from the constriction and discomfort of corsets and elaborate clothing, they gained dramatically in popularity during the Gilded Age (1877-1914). As whalebone corsetry reached its pinnacle of constriction in the mid-1800s, the rise of manufactured garments made relatively unstructured, loose-fitting dressing garments accessible to more women, where they became a mainstay of ladies’ wardrobes. The finest of these offered respite from restrictive European corsets between the numerous daily clothing changes of socially prominent women of leisure, and evolved over time into a style associated with informal entertaining.
But informality did not mean that these garments were utilitarian. Indeed, dressing gowns featured some of the most delicate needlework and finest fabrics available. That fine craftsmanship was often the work of women artisans, either in couture workshops in France or in cottage industries here at home. Seamstresses and embroiderers showcased their own creativity while providing important income to support themselves and their families. Dressing gowns were also cared for by women: the ladies’ maids and laundresses of a great Newport house were part of a circle of female creators, users, and caretakers whose lives, social roles, and work are documented in the surviving examples of dressing gowns on display in this exhibition.
At the turn of the 20th century, a shift began toward more functional, less restrictive, and even manufactured gowns for the active “Modern” woman, freed from the whalebone corset and encouraged to pursue a more physically active lifestyle encompassing sports, motoring and perhaps even a few risqué Ragtime and jazz-era dance crazes. Inspired by Orientalist art and European Colonial “exploration,” dressing gowns sometimes took their cues from Middle Eastern kaftans and, especially, the Japanese kimono. In the early 20th century, progressive “outside” fashion, such as the work of designer Paul Poiret, shocked old-timers by bringing dressing-gown inspired fashion out of the boudoir and into the drawing room, ballroom, and nightclub -- and onto the silver screen of early movies.
Well into the 20th century, even as the formality of Gilded Age bustles and whalebone corsets vanished into memory, a lady still "dressed down” beautifully for her innermost circle, mindful of the enduring glamour of the dressing gown.
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