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April 25, 2022

French Fashion in Gilded Age America

Paris has a long history as the fashion capital of the world. In the late 19th Century, American women, like European women, wanted the latest in French fashion. The wealthiest women traveled to Paris regularly to visit their favorite couturiers, like the House of Worth and Maison Félix, to update their wardrobes. For those women who couldn’t afford to travel, Paris came to them, via international expositions, magazines, and department stores. 

I’m joined in this episode by art historian Dr. Elizabeth L. Block, author of Dressing Up: The Women Who Influenced French Fashion, who helps us understand how the American women who were purchasing gowns and dresses helped transform the fashion industry.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Image Credit: “Mrs. William Astor (Caroline Webster Schermerhorn, 1831–1908),” painted by Carolus-Duran, 1890. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image is in the Public Domain. Audio Credit: “Nuit d'Etoiles (Starry Night),” written by Théodore de Banville and Claude Debussy; performed by Julia Culp and Coenraad V. Bos, 1917. Courtesy of the Internet Archive. Audio is in the Public Domain.


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. Today, we're discussing the American clients of French fashion houses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and how the women clients and the transatlantic trade influenced the fashion industry. It was no accident that Paris became the fashion capital of the world. After the 30 Years War ended in 1648, France was the dominant power in Europe and leaned into fashion as a way of maintaining that cultural dominance. King Louis XIV, along with his chief minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, created a favorable balance of trade for France, and encouraged the development of technical expertise in textile manufacturing, going so far as to fix the quality of each article by law, punishable at the whipping post. Paris maintained its pre-eminent position in fashion, and in 1858 solidified it, when English couturier Charles Frederick Worth opened the first haute couture house in Paris, at first in partnership with Otto Bobergh, though he cut ties with Bobergh in 1871. Worth began his career apprenticing for textile merchants in London, and studying historic portraits in the National Gallery in his spare time. Moving to Paris in 1845, he found work with the fashion firm Gagelin. Worth was already recognized as a talented designer, having won awards for his designs at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, and the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855. But it was when he caught the attention and patronage of Empress Eugenie that his star power was established. Worth, who excelled at self -promotion helped augment this perception that styles were set in Paris, and that the French fashion houses were the arbiters of taste. When Charles Frederick Worth died, the house was run by his sons, Gaston Lucien and Jean Philippe and then by his grandson Jacque. It was finally closed in 1956. In 1868, Le Chambre Syndicale de la  Haute Couture, was established in Paris to safeguard the makers of haute couture and to prevent copying. Only recognized designers who met the specifications could call themselves couture houses under these rules. Le Chambre still exists today under the auspices of the Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. The House of Worth was quickly joined by other houses of haute couture, including the house of Paquin, owned by Jeanne and Isidore Paquin, which opened in 1891; Maison Doeuillet owned by Georges Doeuillet, which opened in 1900; Maison Paul Poiret, owned by Paul Poiret, which opened in 1903; Maison Cheruit by Louise Cheruit, which opened in 1906. Mason Felix, owned by Emile Martine Possineau had opened even before the House of Worth, having been founded in 1846

Coco Chanel opened her first millinary shop as early as 1910, but it wasn't until later, in 1915 that she opened her first couture house and started to really make her mark on the fashion world. Women from all over Europe came to Paris regularly to update their wardrobes for the season, and American women joined them. Elite women like Mrs. Caroline Astor had apartments in Paris, where they stayed when they were visiting their favorite couturiers. Women who didn't have Mrs. Astor's millions, might visit Paris less frequently, or send their measurements with a friend to obtain gowns and dresses. For those women who couldn't travel to Paris, Paris came to them. By the middle of the 19th century, French designers or designers claiming to be French, could be found in many of the larger urban centers in the United States, along with importers of French fashion, such as Gaynors in downtown New York City. Dry goods stores had been around in various forms since the 17th century, and by the late 19th century, there were thousands of dry goods stores around the United States. Dry goods referred to goods that were measured in dry measure, instead of liquid volume, and they included both textiles and ready-to-wear clothing. Stores such as RH Macy's and Lord and Taylor started as dry goods stores, and these stores obtained textiles, notions and clothing from importers or through agents. In the mid 19th century, some of the dry goods stores started to expand the range of wares they offered and organize them into individual departments, giving rise to the department store.  Arnold Constable had begun as a dry goods store in 1825, moving into a five story white marble palace, known as the Marble House, in 1857. As business continued to grow, they moved into progressively larger spaces. By 1900, Arnold Constable and Company was bringing couture designs, such as Doucet, directly from Paris to sell in their stores. And they weren't alone, as the number of department stores continued to grow. Couture fashion faced competition, not just from local American designers, but also from stores and dressmakers that would copy the French fashions and make them with cheaper local textiles and notions. To keep up with the demands of the US consumer market, the couture designers made multiples of their dresses, much as we might see today in stores, specifically for the US trade; and they made patterns of their dresses available for sale. The zenith of French fashion in the United States was during the Gilded Age, roughly 1870 to 1900. But even after readymade clothing became more easily available, Americans continued to be drawn to French couture. Joining me to help us learn more about the French fashion houses and their American consumers is art historian Dr. Elizabeth L. Block author of "Dressing Up: the Women Who Influenced French Fashion."

Hi, Liz, thanks so much for joining me today.

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  9:55  
So, so happy to be here. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  9:56  
Yeah, so this is a really fun  book and I think it'll be a really fun conversation with shocking connections to the modern day in our popular culture right now that we'll get into in a little bit. But clearly, you started writing this book before things like "The Gilded Age" were on TV. So what got you into this topic?

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  10:18  
Well, like many art, historical, and fashion history inquiries, this one started with John Singer Sargent's "Madame X." I don't know if you can envision that painting. It's made its way through popular culture over the last couple of decades. But it's a painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I work, and it was painted in 1883, to '84. And it's this very famous painting of this slender woman in this very slinky black velvet dress. And it caused such a scandal at the Paris Salon when John Singer Sargent presented it because one of her sleeves was falling down her shoulder, and it was a scandal and he was made to repaint it. And, you know, the rest really is fashion and painting history. But I was writing an article on "Madame X," specifically about her red hair, because I do work both in fashion history and hair history. And so I sent a draft of the article to our friend, and he wrote back and he said, "I think we need to know a little bit more about who made the dress." And that launched this very long inquiry into the Maison Felix, who figures very heavily into the book.

Kelly Therese Pollock  11:32  
Yeah. So talk to me about how you do this research. I was surprised to see that there aren't better business records for these houses, and that that isn't a way into this. But also you're interested in not, not the fashion houses themselves, or not just the fashion houses themselves, but the connection with the American audience and American customers. So what are the ways into this? What are the types of sources that you used?

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  11:59  
I'm incredibly lucky to be just two elevator stops away from the Costume Institute here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I was just had the true honor of spending some time in the storage facility with a technician and a research associate down there, and was able to not handle, but look very closely and carefully at a few of the gowns that figure into these stories and into the book, specifically by the Maison Felix. So it's spending time with the garments in person as much as possible. And of course, you know, when I can't get into storage, then I go to as many exhibitions as possible and stand very close to the garments. But there's also a lot of, you know, women's history. This is an interdisciplinary book. So it's fashion history, American Studies, French studies, business history, and really, really deep women's history. So I spend a lot of time reading women's letters from the late 19th century, reading their diaries, or reading invoices from their shopping trips, if they exist. They're very difficult to find. And I like what you said about the business records being difficult to suss out. It's true. It's so rare to have a complete business history for one of these French design houses. It's unusual that the House of Worth has its full records in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; but for the Maison Felix, for example, there's really nothing, and I've been in touch with family members there. They've given me everything they have. But let's hope someday some more records turn up.

Kelly Therese Pollock  13:38  
Yeah, yeah. And you also then it seems like spent a lot of time looking at magazines and newspapers and things from from that time period. And it's so interesting what you're able to pull out of those sorts of sources.

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  13:54  
Yes, I get lost in the 19th century periodicals, as many of us know, the advertisements, the fashion plates. So what I would do is just go down to Watson Library at the Met, request several volumes of French periodicals, American periodicals and then just you know what they call, #researchjoy, sit there and flip very slowly and carefully through the periodicals and spend time with those fashion plates that are so vibrant. Some of them are so vibrant in color. And also the advertisements help round out the story when you're going month to month through the years.

Kelly Therese Pollock  14:31  
Yeah, yeah, it's incredible. So you in putting this together and putting your book together, you're looking at the fashion houses themselves, the connections as you said business history, the connections between the fashion houses and other kinds of related businesses, and then also at the clientele and especially the American clientele. Can you talk some about sort of the the organizing structure of your book and why you chose to present in this way?

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  15:01  
One of the main purposes and goals of the book is to restore this equilibrium between the makers of French couture, their high end design, designed clothing, and the consumers. So the American women, American women were not the only consumers of French fashion. Of course, there were British and German and Austrian customers as well, and some Japanese, but what I'm looking at specifically was were these women who were so invested in, you know, maintaining their status in American society, which meant buying the very best of the best, and that meant buying French fashion. But we have to have this complete understanding of the fashion system in the period. And today, I think, you know, before my research, what I was seeing was, you know, these monographs on these, these male designers, these, you know, the House of Worth, or some of and some of the others, like Jacques Doucet. They were focused on the male genius creator, and you see that throughout art history, which is my original training. And, you know, we've moved on from that in art history, you know, to social history and to patronage into collecting history. So it seems to me that all the books in the fashion history category, were heavily focused on these men. And yes, there were some men who were the heads of houses, for sure. But it was not just Charles Frederick Worth or Emile Possineau who were running these major houses. There were hundreds of seamstresses. There were live models walking through the salons to model the dresses for the women who were coming in. It was very much a women's space. So I just I want to restore, you know, this, you know, production and consumption end of the picture.

Kelly Therese Pollock  16:55  
And so then let's talk some about these consumers, about American women. What are the various ways that American women are interacting with French fashion? So there's, of course, women who actually go to France, to Paris, to buy on regular trips, but but you talk about various other ways that they're actually connecting with French fashion. So can you talk some about that piece of it?

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  17:20  
Yes, it was a very rare percentage of women say, the top 1% like Caroline Astor, or Alva Vanderbilt, who were going to Paris twice a year to shop for their wardrobes and staying in apartments that they rented or owned there, and then bringing back trunks full of clothing. So I do focus on many of those women. But the other, the other question that you're asking is, how did those designs disseminate throughout the United States so that other women could, could obtain them? And one of the main ways that that came through was through the department department stores, which are, you know, these democratic marketplaces would be Altman, Lord and Taylor, Stern and Company, you name it across the country. So we're not just talking about New York ever. I mean, this book, we're talking about Chicago, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco. People were obtaining French fashion through the department stores in all of those major urban centers.

Kelly Therese Pollock  18:24  
Yeah, and then sort of jumping around here. But toward the end of the book you talk about as the the tariffs come in. And, you know, I will admit, I had I knew about the tariffs, but it had never occurred to me that they would have an effect on fashion. But the tariffs are imposed, it becomes a lot more expensive to get dresses or fabric from France, and all of a sudden you have a lot of copying going on, which continues to be a problem in fashion through today. So can you talk some about that about this sort of policy that I'm sure it was not really intended to affect fashion, but these policies that are being put in place by the government that then affect fashion?

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  19:06  
Yes, I have a whole chapter on tariffs. And as I was writing it, I was concerned, you know, because this book is supposed to appeal both to the general reader and enthusiast, but also to an academic audience. I thought, oh, these tariffs, but they're so fascinating. And, you know, so they're, you know, toward that in the 1890s, you get sort of a run of these tariffs that were protectionist measures. So they were trying to the government was trying to protect local makers of, you know, really all across industries, but when it came to textiles, especially in the Northeast, and the government was trying to have American companies provide to the American public, but of course, these women who could afford anything they wanted, I mean, they just had so much wealth, they were not convinced, so they were still buying from Paris. They wanted the finest silks from Lyon. And what we get is a lot of smuggling to begin by going in underneath other items of clothing. So there are stories of, you know, a woman wearing a new wedding dress underneath an old wedding dress to get it through the New York customs office, and to avoid, you know, tariffs for buying foreign foreign fabrics and foreign products. And those tariffs could add up to hundreds of dollars, which would be tens of thousands today. You know, they they knew what they were doing, as far as copying. Yes. So, the department stores very famously would send their send their buyers to Paris, the American department stores and so these, you know, the buyers would see what the latest fashions were, and they would bring a sketch book and they would sketch. So in some cases, in many cases, they would bring the sketches back and have local dressmakers copy the Fench designs, and then sell them at a more reasonable price and call it an American-made good.

Kelly Therese Pollock  21:09  
It sounds like that then actually changed some of what the French fashion houses were doing that they were like, "Okay, well, we got to get in on this, too." So what is their reaction to this kind of copying that's happening?

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  21:23  
Yeah, I love this aspect of this transnational industry, really, because you're right, the the French couturiers, the designers saw what was happening with the copying in the US. Many of them spoke English, and were reading the papers, and then were hearing about their labels of, Maison Felix label was showing up on American goods. So there were fakes happening. And so the head of the Maison Felix, Emile Possineau, said, "Yeah, this is gonna happen, I can't stop it. So let me get in on it." And so what he did was he started making goods for specifically for the American department store market. So they're a little watered down. In the book, I do have an example of a copy. It's very hard to get at how they look different than the, "real thing." But they are less detailed, less, less bells and whistles, put it that way, pearls, or rhinestones, or even gems. And it was a very smart move, because they saw that they needed to get a piece of that, of that income.

Kelly Therese Pollock  22:34  
You just mentioned label. And so we're actually talking specifically about actual physical labels here. It sounds like that was also something that that came during this time period that that early on, and some of the dresses that you were talking about being able to physically see, you don't actually necessarily know for sure, who designed them, but then later, they have actual labels in them. So how does that sort of develop? Why does that develop?

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  23:03  
Its branding and the branding begins about 1865, with the House of Worth. And the House of Worth, I'll keep mentioning it because it really, it was the leader, there's no way around it. They were the first to sew labels into the petersham of the dresses. And so there, you know, just beautiful script writing that says, you know, the CF Worth, Charles Frederick Worth, and then later on, it's just this script for Worth after the house was taken over by his two sons. They were the first to sew in labels and all the other houses started to follow suit. And it's really, really fascinating. I mean, I would love to just do an article on fashion, these labels from the period because they're meant to show you know, a signature. So they were signed works of art. They were sewn in. And this practice carried over to the United States as well. So I just this morning was working on some American dress makers, all women, and they signed, they said they had labels as well. And they signed their work and with the street address. So it worked as a fun piece of advertising. So we have you know, Mrs. Egan on Fulton Street in Brooklyn,  you know, right there in your waistband, you know. So if your friend liked your dress, you could show the waist, you know, you have to go to Mrs. Egan, or Catherine Donovan signed many of hers. She was in downtown New York.

Kelly Therese Pollock  24:31  
Yeah. Oh, that's fascinating. And of course, we take that so much for granted. Now we assume that all of our clothes, even if they're from knockoff places are gonna have labels in them.

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  24:41  
It's really such a treat when you find a dress that has a label or a jacket or a shawl or you know, a coat. Many of them have fallen, you know, either fallen off or were taken off by later owners who for one reason or another and there's a lot of reuse of dresses, which I talked about in the book, as well, but that may have led to some of the labels coming out. So it's really, you know, fascinating. Sometimes you need to get a sense of a designer's style by just a few labeled gowns or dresses, and then try to match those styles to the fashion plates, and then in turn, try to try to attribute existing unlabeled garments to one of those designers. There's a lot of backwards historical work that you do, but it's all really fun.

Kelly Therese Pollock  25:33  
So I want to talk to you about these international expositions. So I live within walking distance of where the Chicago Exposition was in 1893. So these hold a sort of special place in my heart. But these were really important in fashion in the way that fashion gets to the masses. And and then we can talk about this, the way that the exposition in Paris, I believe it's the 1900 one plays into what happens with Maison Felix. So can you talk some about sort of, I guess, for people who maybe aren't as obsessed with international expositions as I am, sort of what those are, and you know what that means for fashion to have these expositions?

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  26:15  
Yes, international expositions were a way for countries, nations to show off the best of their culture. I mean, there's an entire secondary literature on international expositions. As you know, the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, in Chicago was one of the best known in the United States. There was also St. Louis, San Francisco, in the late 19th century. In Paris, there were several in the 1870s, then 1889, and then this big one in 1900, that I look at closely. So the Paris Exposition of 1900 had international exhibitors at it. And because couture and clothing and fabrics were so central to the economy of France, this was a major topic, a major subject of various exhibitions at the fair, which brought, by the way, 50 million people, internationally. People were traveling to come there and it was, people dressed for it. There were restaurants, there were hairdressers. I mean, it just if only we could recreate it right? A moving sidewalk, electricity everywhere. It just, you know, if only we could go if only we could go back. But for these couturiers, this was a chance to show off their work and have really a captive audience. You could get millions of people to see your work who otherwise may not make it to your shop on the Rue de la Paix. So the Maison Felix had a major exhibition, and Emile Possineau, who was the head of the house, got very invested in it. The Maison Felix was founded in the 1860s. And it goes all the way, is very successful, and then it abruptly ends in 1901. And I started thinking, why does it fall off in 1901? Of course, you know, 1901, we know, Queen Victoria's reign ends. So, you know, I say, "Well, you know, how is this connected? How is this connected?" Anyway, he was very, very involved in the Paris Exposition. He spent hundreds and thoudands of dollars at that time, on an exhibition of not only his current designs for the house, garments, but also on historical exhibitions. So he had, you know, Ancient Egypt, and you can picture these wax figures. There are images in the book, wax figures, you know, dressing up as Cleopatra or and then moving on through the ages, queen, Empress Josephine, and he recreated a long gown of hers in velvet. And because he spent so much money, the papers believed that he overspent and that's why the house closed. He vehemently denied it, but I think all the signs are there.

Kelly Therese Pollock  29:19  
Yeah. Yeah. It's so interesting, because of course, that that could pay off, right? It's a risk that you would think like, Okay, this brings so much attention to you, you know, it could really you could take off after and of course, it's a risk.

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  29:33  
It was a risk, and these were business people. So it's a smart way to remember that they were making decisions the way any business people would today.

Kelly Therese Pollock  29:43  
Yeah. Although perhaps also sort of taken away with. This is such a fun thing to put together.

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  29:49  
Traveling to Egypt. Yeah. Not keeping an eye on the budget.

Kelly Therese Pollock  29:55  
Yeah, yeah. So your book, in addition to being an academic book, is also in many ways a picture book. It's like a coffee table picture book, which is fantastic, since it's about fashion that you get to actually see these things. But what what is that process like,  sort of figuring out what images to put, how many to put, how to best illustrate what you want to illustrate? I know that makes then there's publishing implications about printing in color, and how many images and stuff so what what does that whole process look like?

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  30:30  
As a book editor, myself, I work on very beautiful glossy art and historical books here at the Met. I was very invested in the highest quality production, and I insisted on full color all the way through the book. I cannot overstate how lucky I was and how wonderful it was to work with MIT Press. They understood the concept for the book, the acquiring editor did from the very beginning. And she stuck with me on my insistence for full color. And, you know, they allocated a certain number of color images that I could have, I think there's 90, and yes, boy, is that a difficult decision-making process! So yeah, you know, I started with probably 150 and whittled it down to 90, very difficult, but I wanted to strike a balance between showing garments that really spoke to what you know, the subjects I was talking about. So I have several fancy ball outfits because I go into detail about the 1883 Vanderbilt ball and another ball by Mrs. Astor in New York. So I wanted to show an equal distribution between fancy dress, and and then ballgowns. I wanted to also distribute the images equally between the makers, because we have these names that come up all the time. But then there are so many other makers who need to be restored to the historical record. So I wanted to show Pingat and Doucet and Hallée and Lanvin and many of the women designers who we have forgotten unfortunately.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Kelly Therese Pollock  32:06  
Yeah, I think one of my favorite things is when you can see a portrait of a woman wearing a dress and then see the actual dress itself. It really sort of brings it to life, I think.

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  32:19  
So rewarding and so difficult to get the matchups but I was so happy that I was able to reproduce the red velvet gown on the cover of the book from 1898. And then inside the book, I also have the portrait of Edith Kingdon Gould, who wore the dress, the portrait of her by Chartran, showing her in the gown, and then you know, and then showing how she accessorized it. You know, we need this visual evidence to see how women were wearing these garments because sometimes we only get the dress or we only get the feather boa or we only get the bonnet but to have that portrait, yes, invaluable.

Kelly Therese Pollock  33:00  
Yeah, and you mentioned earlier that these dresses are changed over time, that they keep wearing them. I don't know if you've seen the episode of "The Simpsons," but there's a an episode where Marge has a suit and that she's like, "How many different ways can I cut this up and change it?" I kept thinking about that.

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  33:17  
Yeah, it's the best, like" I'll make it sleeveless," yeah, because she's invested in it.

Kelly Therese Pollock  33:24  
Yeah. And so it's interesting to think that even people like Mrs. Astor with millions of dollars, do this sort of thing that they're finding different ways to wear these dresses.

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  33:36  
That's right. I have a chapter in "Dressing Up" about reuse, rewear. And really, it's upcycling, recycling, and it's to what's happening in the market today. It's I think, because first of all, there was no stigma in re-wearing a dress. You might not wear it to Mrs. Astor's ball on Monday night and then to an opera the very following week, you might space it out. There was no stigma. In fact, it became part of your personal brand. The newspapers, the gossip columns in the newspapers would write about all these women's favorite, favorite dresses and the their favorite jewelry and how they re- accessorized a certain dress. So you will see an article that says Caroline Astor's daughter wore her mother's famous jeweled stomacher, but she wore it with a blue dress rather than the black or purple one that Caroline Astor Sr. always wears. So number one, no, no stigma attached to it. And then number two, the women knew fabrics and they respected high quality fabrics, and they weren't just going to have something re-cut or recycled for no reason. They were going to put it to good use. They did give away their dresses too when they were really done with them, to either the secondhand market or to charities, but they will get a lot of use out of it. There's a letter from one woman who is very proud of the fact that she re-wore a certain suit to multiple times to visit the World's Columbian Exposition. It just, it was a sign of pragmatism.

Kelly Therese Pollock  35:17  
Yeah. So we can't not talk about "The Gilded Age," which I know a lot of at least the Twitterstorians are watching, as I see lots of chatter about it. And I really felt like reading your book, I understood "The Gilded Age" better. Having seen "The Gilded Age," I was able to picture things in your book. So it was a nice sort of compliment, that, as I mentioned, is, you know, unintentional on your part, but nonetheless, worked really well together. So what as you have been watching "The Gilded Age," and I assume that you have, you know, what, what are things that you think they're sort of really getting right about this age, about fashion, about you talk about mansions and things in this book as well? And are there things you think that that they're maybe not quite getting right?

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  36:04  
"The Gilded Age" on HBO by Julian Fellowes struck at such a time. I, we couldn't have gotten luckier with this synergy between the television show and my book. You and I were just talking about reuse and rewear, and the fact that there was no stigma. So one of the things that I think they got right on point is Cynthia Nixon's character re-wears certain dresses, from one episode, maybe not to the next, but maybe from episode one, and then in episode three, and you know, they tried to match her reddish-colored hair with these more natural browns and oranges in the dresses. I think that was very spot on. Most, many of the etiquette books that I read from the period, speak to how you should be matching colors of your dress with the color of your hair. So I think they got that really spot on. And also, the Cynthia Nixon character, she's one of the aunts, she's  she's the unmarried aunt of a certain age. Her dresses are fairly conservative. They look, they look more American made again, like, you know, this sort of like, maybe distilled a bit from the French styles, you know, a series of bows down the middle. I think they got that really right. And then the other sort of ingenue women have more are more out there with the colors and with larger features, shall we say?

Kelly Therese Pollock  37:40  
Yeah, yeah. Was there, is there anything that sort of doesn't seem like it quite matches what you would have expected in that time?

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  37:48  
It's very difficult to put this into words, but I think we see it in "Bridgerton," as well, if people are watching "Bridgerton," where the there's just an exaggeration in the colors of the gowns and in the sort of the bows and you can sense when colors are chosen like a bright yellow or a bright turquoise combination that I wouldn't necessarily see in the fashion plates at the time or in any existing dresses. But you'll see that on the the nouveau riche characters. I think it's exaggerated on purpose, but I don't think it exactly matches the period.

Kelly Therese Pollock  38:30  
Do you think that the general Interplay, so if I'm watching "The Gilded Age" and the interplay between the ways that sort of the old money and the nouveau riche are interacting, the ways that, I know the Russells aren't real people, real historical people, but the sort of the ways they might act as the nouveau riche does? Does all of that sort of like I'm watching it going? Wow, this is how it really was like, does that sort of seem in your mind like a like, yeah, it does give us sort of, it's obviously not a documentary, but gives us a sense of that.

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  39:00  
I think that's pretty accurately portrayed, though. So the Russell family comes on. Mrs. Russell reminds me of Alva Vanderbilt figure who, you know, now we speak of the Vanderbilts and the Astors in the same breath. But at that time, the Vanderbilts were new, new money and not the old Knickerbocker family of the Astors. So I do think that holds true, especially in the younger generation.

Kelly Therese Pollock  39:26  
Yeah, yeah. Well, good, then I'll just assume it's a documentary.

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  39:32  
Live inside it.

Kelly Therese Pollock  39:35  
I love it. People should definitely get your book, if only for the pictures, not just for the pictures, but if only for the pictures, because it's beautiful. So how can people get your book?

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  39:45  
The book is available everywhere that books are sold. It's published by MIT Press, distributed by Penguin Random House. You can buy it on Amazon, and also and all of your independent booksellers. Locally here, I love Corner Bookstore in New York. So I go there, McNally Jackson and other favorites, so support independent bookstores. And so pleased that this book is in wide release so that you can get it anywhere.

Kelly Therese Pollock  40:11  
Yeah, yeah. Is there anything else you want to make sure we talk about?

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  40:16  
I want to reinforce the fact that we're never just talking about New York City, but also all of these cities in the country. There are so many women affecting US culture in Ohio, in California, New Orleans, in Louisiana, that you know, "The Gilded Age" television show as New York-based, but let's also remember to invest in researching women who are buying fashion, buying other goods from Cincinnati, and all the other cities, Charleston, that we've been talking about.

Kelly Therese Pollock  40:53  
Yes, as a Chicagoan I was quite pleased to see Bertha Palmer show up in your book.

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  40:59  
She's in the book, and then the McKays are also in the book. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  41:04  
Yeah. Yeah, no, definitely, and that definitely comes through in your book that, that we are definitely not just talking about New York. And I think that, that that's an important thing for us to think about, you know, especially I suppose "The Gilded Age." That is the one thing that you know, you can only do so much with a TV show, but makes it feel like this high society is only New York.

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  41:28  
They do go to Newport, Rhode Island as well.

Kelly Therese Pollock  41:31  
Well, Liz, thank you so much for speaking with me. This was a really fun book to read and a really fun conversation. And, you know, I so enjoy this, this turn of making the consumers an equal part of this conversation.

Dr. Elizabeth L. Block  41:48  
Thank you. Such a pleasure.

Teddy  41:52  
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Transcribed by

Elizabeth L. BlockProfile Photo

Elizabeth L. Block

Elizabeth L. Block, an art historian, is Senior Editor in the Publications and Editorial Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She is managing editor of the Metropolitan Museum Journal.
She holds a PhD in art history from The Graduate Center, City University of New York, an MA in American Studies from Columbia University, New York, and a BA in English and art history from The George Washington University, Washington, DC.