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Curse you Pinterest!

CADD strikes again! I saw this portrait on Pinterest several weeks ago and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

James Scouler, Miss Mary Jolly, 1783. The Johnston Collection via Wikimedia Commons

If I am lucky enough to go to Costume College this year, I want to make this for my Gala dress. Heck, even if I don’t go to Costume College, I need this dress in my life ASAP! It’s such an unusual style.  At first glance the sleeves, trimming, and chemisette almost seem like fancy dress or masquerade costume. The gown is very similar to the one in this portrait, and reminiscent of this one as well, though the size of the sleeves and trimming on my inspiration is much more modest. Also, the composition of the portrait doesn’t mesh with that idea of a masquerade dress. She is portrayed simply in a stylized classical interior, looking away from her book in a moment of abstraction. Her elbow rests on a small table stacked with books and sheet music, symbols of an intelligent, accomplished young woman. Her hair is elegant and unpowdered, accented only with braids and a double strand of pearls, but still in the fashionable shape you see in other contemporary portraits. There is no mask or other symbolic objects to hint that this may a costume (Though I obviously could be missing something. My art interpretation is spotty at best.)

Looking closer at the cut of the gown, it is looks like a Levite. The long sleeves, the collar, the sash at the waist, and the center front closure over an under bodice all point to this style. In fact, it looks markedly like this fashion plate printed in 1782, only one year before the portrait was painted. If you look closely, they both even have two rows of buttons closed with ribbons down the center front.   

After my initial grabby hands-WANT!-reaction, the dress reminded me strongly of a historical costume as viewed through a 1780s lens. Like the 18th century version of a 60s costume movie, where the actress’s hair and makeup instantly proclaim the decade. The sitter looks like the heroine of gothic novel, gazing out the window in her pseudo-16th or 17th century dress waiting to be rescued. This is a completely fanciful interpretation and is highly colored by my overzealous imagination, but I look at the portrait and see Emily St. Aubert from The Mysteries of Udolpho or Adeline from The Romance of the Forest (never mind that both novels were published nearly 10 years or more after this portrait was painted).  I think it would be so much fun to recreate the dress and play up the idea of a gothic heroine. It would tie in so nicely with the theme of Costume College, and since I think it’s plausible to call it a Levite, I can construct in a historically accurate manner and use it for other 18th century events.  Win-win!
Posted: 2/4/2015 4:57:56 PM by Aubry | with comments
Filed under: 1780s: Gothic Heroine
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