I get asked this question quite frequently. The truth is that it changes depending on what I am working on at the moment because I don’t have a true favorite period. I love various aspects from almost every period of costume history, especially between the 1770s and the 1960s. However, there is a period that has always been, and will always be, particularly close to my heart…
Now, some of my graduate school friends would STRONGLY disagree with me about how beautiful dresses of the 1830s are. I, however, disagree. But I’ll get into that momentarily, first, let me explain to you why the 1830s hold a special place in my heart.
A few miles outside the small town of Petersburg, Illinois, and situated on the beautiful Sangamon River is a living history site known as Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site. When I was growing up, my parents loved history and helping make it come to life. After a few years of doing a French and Indian fur traders encampment near our home town (almost 2 hours south of Petersburg), my parents decided to take the entire family (myself and my two older sisters) to Lincoln’s New Salem and start volunteering. The village is a reproduction of the village that once stood around that same spot in the 1830s, some of the homes are even built on the spots of original foundations. The village was built in the 1930s during the Great Depression by a government-sponsored work group. The reason for its importance is primarily held in one of its residents…Abraham Lincoln (it is Illinois after all!). Lincoln lived in New Salem for a number of years in the 1830s before moving to Springfield to be a lawyer. It was during his time in New Salem that Lincoln studied law by the fireside, worked as a postmaster, and even tried his hand at clerking a general store.
Anyhow…back to why I love the 1830s. When we would venture up to New Salem to volunteer for the day (or on lucky occasions to camp out and make it an entire weekend affair) my father would often find himself demonstrating cooperage (wooden bucket and barrel making) at the Cooper’s Shop, while my mother interpreted one of the other homes and spent much of the day working on various sewing projects. My sisters and I were left to run and play as we saw fit…as long as whatever we were doing was appropriate to the 1830s. Usually this meant reading books, learning to spin wool (this was where I fell in love with the history of textiles…but that’s an entirely different story!), or venturing up to help cook the volunteers’ noon meal on an open hearth at the 1830s tavern (more an inn than a place to drink).
Since the village interpreted life in the 1830s, we were all required to wear reproduction 1830s clothing. I LOVED dressing up as a child (and still do…) and my favorite part of going to New Salem was getting to don my 1830s dress with its multiple petticoats and wander about with everything I needed in a basket slung over my arm. Running, turning cartwheels, and generally just being a kid was so different in that 1830s village than it was when I was at home. And I loved it. Every minute of it.
I fell in love with the period of the 1830s then. I love the idea that the sexiest part of a woman’s body in this period was a well-turned ankle peaking below layers of white cotton petticoats. I love the use of dramatic prints now that some of the mysteries of dyes and printing had been discovered and printed cottons were all the rage. I love the dramatic gigot sleeves and bell-shaped skirts giving the illusion of a tiny waist.
Yes, the layers upon layers of petticoats (sometimes seven or more!) needed to achieve the correct look could be cumbersome. And the sleeves were a bit ridiculous at times and rarely liked to stay put. But, I still love the look of the 1830s. I love that at the end of the 1820s and beginning of the 1830s you can see the waistline slowly get pushed down from its Empire position and the sleeves grow increasingly wider only to reach the epitome of width in the mid 1830s. Then, towards the end of the period you see the volume of the sleeves push down towards the elbow, and the waistline sink to just below the natural waist.
So…although I still claim not to have a “favorite” time period when it comes to fashion history, I certainly do have a special place reserved in my heart for the 1830s. And every time I wish for a little nostalgia, I just sit back and turn on the movie “Cranford” and enjoy the exquisite 1830s costumes and wish I was there.
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