The Fashions of Jane Austen

In honor of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s passing on July 18, 1817, the Historic Costume & Textiles Collection installed three dresses in the Thompson Library Special Collections area. Jane Austen lived from 1775 to 1817, a period marked by significant developments in politics, manufacturing and society as a whole. There was a growing interest in ancient Greek culture and ideals of democracy as opposed to monarchy due to the discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the mid-18th century. This, along with the American and French Revolutions, inspired a change in fashion that reflected these new democratic ideals. Women’s dresses transitioned from the stiff artificial silhouettes popular in the French court of Louis XVI, to the light columnar silhouettes of the early 18th century. This style of gown has come to be known as the Empire silhouette, in reference to the French empire and Josephine Bonaparte who popularized this new style. Women’s gowns were primarily made of white cotton or small floral printed cottons. It was believed that the Ancient Greeks wore only white as the statues that had been discovered were white. The statues were white, of course, due to being bleached by the sun over time, but fashion is frequently inspired by idealism rather than realism so the trend for light-colored gowns continued.

Films of Jane Austen’s novels are often the entry point by which people encounter this period of fashion. Interestingly, most film adaptations dress the actors in fashions indicative of the various novel’s dates of publication rather than when the novels were originally written. For example, Pride & Prejudice was published in 1813 but Jane originally began work on the novel in 1796. Additionally, a close analysis of Pride & Prejudice reveals that the events of the novel were more than likely written to have taken place between 1793 and 1795. The 1790’s were a unique period of transition in fashion and it is much easier for a costume designer to create costumes that reflect the latter half of Jane Austen’s life. In fact, the Empire style of gown is now so intrinsically linked with Jane Austen’s characters in the public’s mind that it is almost impossible to separate the two. Three dresses dating from the time of Jane Austen’s life are on display in the Thompson Library and have been paired with first editions of her novels. Jane died on July 18, 1817 and this year marks the 200th anniversary of her passing. This exhibit invites viewers to celebrate one of Britain’s most popular authors whose novels continue to find a fresh set of devotees with each new generation.


“To be in company, nicely dressed herself and seeing others nicely dressed, to sit and smile and look pretty, and say nothing, was enough for the happiness of the present hour.”

                                                                                                ~Emma, 1816

Silk Day Dress
Historic Costume & Textiles Collection
Gift of Friends of the Historic Costume & Textiles Collection

This silk day dress is made from a heavier, stiffer silk that was more common in women’s fashion during the 18th century, but still reflects the new columnar silhouette that had become popular in the late 1790’s. While cotton had become more popular for daywear during this period, wealthier women would still have day dresses made in silk. The character of Emma is one of Jane Austen’s only protagonists that does not have to worry about money. Emma is the only child of a wealthy father and fails to understand, at several points throughout the novel, that financial limitations greatly influence the decisions of those around her.

Austen herself could be described as a member of the “pseudo-gentry”. This class of Georgian society was made up of individuals and families that did not own land but were still gentility “of a sort.” Jane’s father, George Austen, made £1,000 per year at the height of his prosperity, but with a family of eight children this was not a large sum. £500 annually was about the limit at which a family could aspire to gentility. This is the exact sum that the Dashwood women would be forced to live on in Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen, along with her mother and sister, would find herself in a similar situation after the death of her father in 1805. These three women had to subsist on slightly less than £500. The women were not firmly settled into a permanent location until 1809 when they moved to Chawton House in Hampshire. It was here that Jane was able to settle into a regular routine and devote more time to writing. Between 1811 and her death in 1817, Jane would compose Emma and Persuasion, as well as publish Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma.


“It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biased by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull, or the jackonet. Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter.”                                  

Cotton Day Dress
Historic Costume & Textiles Collection
Gift of Friends of the Historic Costume & Textiles Collection

                                          ~Northanger Abbey, 1818

Fashion styles changed rather drastically at the end of the 18th century. The highly artificial and opulent dress of the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette transitioned to that of the Greek-inspired silhouette featured in the day dress displayed here. Unlike its predecessors, this new style of dress falls straight and flat to the floor in front, with fullness being concentrated at the center back. Day dresses were commonly made of very fine cotton muslin. While a simple, plain white was popular, floral patterned or “sprigged” muslins were equally popular. The proliferation of cotton gowns was owed in part to the success of the British East India Company which exported large amounts of cotton to British textile manufacturers.

Jane Austen, having been born in 1775, came of age when this revolution in fashion was taking place. While, she does not go into great detail when describing the clothes of her characters, her humor and wit is often on display when fashion becomes a topic of conversation. One such example is featured here. The above quotation is an aside from Jane when describing Catherine Morland’s anxiety as she tries to decide which gown to wear to a ball later in the evening. Northanger Abbey was itself a satire of the Gothic novel and so it should come as no surprise that various aspects of society are satirized within its pages.


“Now I must look at you, Fanny,” said Edmund, with the kind smile of an affectionate brother, “and tell you how I like you; and as well as I can judge by this light, you look very nicely indeed. What have you got on?”

“The new dress that my uncle was so good as to give me on my cousin’s marriage. I hope it is not too fine; but I thought I ought to wear it as soon as I could, and that I might not have such another opportunity all the winter. I hope you do not think me too fine.” [Fanny]

“A woman can never be too fine while she is all in white. No, I see no finery about you; nothing but what is perfectly proper. Your gown seems very pretty. I like these glossy spots. Has not Miss Crawford a gown something the same?” [Edmund]

~Mansfield Park, 1814

Silk Evening Dress
Historic Costume & Textiles Collection
Gift of the Friends of the Historic Costume & Textiles Collection

Evening gowns such as this would be quite like the one that was worn by Fanny Price to formal dinners or balls in Mansfield Park. For the greater part of Jane Austen’s life, evening dresses were the same tubular silhouette as dresses meant for more informal daywear, the difference being they were made of silk and could have more elaborate trimmings. Neither day nor evening dresses had trains, apart from court gowns, from about 1808 onward. This dress has design elements that put it closer to 1820 than 1810 such as its use of a band at the waist. The decoration in its short puffed sleeves mimic slashing, a design element common in garments from the Medieval period. This movement towards medieval revival would expand and continue as fashions begin to change once again in the beginning of the 1820s.

Jane Austen chose to publish her novels anonymously. The author for each book published during her lifetime was simply noted as “A Lady.” It would not be until the posthumous joint publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion as a four volume set, that the true identity of this “Lady” would be revealed. Northanger Abbey was actually the first manuscript that Austen sold to a publisher. She sold it under the original title, Susan, to London bookseller, Crosby & Co., for £10. Unfortunately, they decided against publishing. Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, bought the manuscript back from the publisher in 1816. Jane revised it, renaming it Catherine, with the intention of publication but passed away in 1817. Henry Austen renamed it Northanger Abbey and arranged for its publication, along with Persuasion, and penned an introduction which publicly identified Jane Austen as the author of this and previous works for the first time. A first edition of this four volume set is displayed here alongside a first edition of Mansfield Park, published May 1814, and Emma, published December 1815.  While Austen’s books went out of print for a short period of time after her death they have rarely been unavailable since.



The Color of Politics


Maps of the United States divided into red for Republican-won states and blue for Democrat-won states are on all television stations’ coverage of presidential campaigns these days. While it seems like this practice has been around forever, its use by news networks is actually fairly recent; first used with the presidential election of 1976.

NBC, the first all-color television network, created an illuminated map behind anchor John Chancellor to illustrate how each state’s electorate was voting. NBC chose red for Jimmy Carter (Democrat), and blue for Gerald Ford (Republican). Early on, blue was chosen for the Republican Party due to its association with the Union army during the Civil War and the fact that blue was associated with many of the conservative parties in Europe and elsewhere. As color broadcasting expanded to the other major TV networks, each news program chose its own color scheme to illustrate voting results. There was no standard among all networks, however. It was not until the highly contested election of 2000 that red states came to refer exclusively to those voting Republican and blue states to those voting Democrat. It has since become a sort of short hand for partisanship. While this color coding of American politics creates a striking visual for election results, it can have unforeseen negative psychological effects.

Conor Seyle and Matthew Newman published results which explore the ramifications of defining America in terms of red and blue states. While red and blue are meant to refer to the distribution of electoral votes between Republican and Democrat, media pundits have begun to use red and blue to refer to a broad set of differences, including membership in different groups and social categories such as religion, urban or rural living, socioeconomic status and regional culture. Seyle and Newman write that, “By showing all red states, and all blue states, as being parts of the same political cultures, the red versus blue map ignores compelling differences in regional values and concerns about issues that may lead different states to vote Democratic or Republican for different reasons.” The question posed is why does this change in labeling from Republican and Democrat to red and blue create problems? The answer is somewhat complex but can be broken down in this way. The definitions of Republican and Democratic have nothing to do with membership in other groups. They are based solely on political opinions. In contrast, red and blue are used to refer to a large set of shared opinions, group memberships and perspectives. Seyle and Newman write, “As such, describing a person or group as red implies information not only about their stance on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and civil liberties but also about their religious memberships, educational backgrounds, and beliefs about the role of America in the world.” The effect of this paradigm is that it encourages people to see political opponents as opponents in all things, thus encouraging a winner takes all approach to public judgement, rather than working together. This often results in a destructive conflict in which people are less willing to incorporate other perspectives and compromise on a happy medium, thus reducing government efficiency and effectiveness. It would, perhaps, be in the best interest of the public for the media to refrain from utilizing the red and blue labels and simply return to referring to each state by the name of the political party who has won the majority of votes.

Working together, we are united in Red, White and Blue.

For more information about the artifacts pictured above, please visit our previous blog post Red, White, Blue and Fabulous


D. Conor Seyle and Matthew L. Newman, “A House Divided?: The Psychology of Red and Blue America,” American Psychologist 61 (2006):571-580.

First Lady Fashion: Part IV, Barbara Bush

Barbara Bush

When Barbara Bush took to the presidential campaign trail with her husband George H. W. Bush, her poof of white hair and witty personality earned her the nickname “First Grandmother.” When she wore her blue Scaasi gown to the inaugural ball in 1989, the designer deemed her “the most glamorous grandmother in the United States.”

1994-561-1-webThe gown’s long, puffed sleeves taper toward the wrists, and its royal blue skirt is asymmetrically draped below the dark blue top and gathered at a bow on the side. Scaasi sold a handful of dresses like it and, upon Mrs. Bush’s decision to wear one herself to the ball, he covertly called up the other owners to make sure none of them wore theirs there, too. Then, he discontinued it.

Over the years, the other gowns of this design either disappeared or were kept in private collections. Nowadays, there are only two available for public display. One, the gown originally worn by Barbara Bush, is housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. The other, this one, a gown first owned by New York socialite Brooke Astor, belongs to Ohio State’s Historic Costume & Textiles Collection. They differ only in size (this is 6, the other a 20) and accessibility. When the George Bush Presidential Library wanted a loan of Barbara’s inaugural gown, instead of borrowing the original from the Smithsonian, they called up the Costume Collection and had Brooke Astor’s Scaasi gown shipped to Texas in a specially built crate.

Barbara Bush wore several Scaasi gowns during the inaugural festivities. As the designer himself put it at the time, “clothes are not by any means her main priority, but I think she likes getting dressed up.” Barbara Bush was a pulled-together First Lady, but, unlike her predecessor, Nancy Reagan, not an overly fashion-conscious one.

Nevertheless, Bush and Scaasi remained a team throughout Barbara’s time in the White House. He claimed to have avoided promoting business with Hillary Clinton out of loyalty to the Bush family, and Barbara was guest of honor at the opening of a Scaasi exhibition in New York in 1996, an extravagant gathering where all attending ladies wore their own Scaasi gowns from over the years.

Canadian-born Arnold Scaasi (“Isaacs” spelled backwards) studied in Montreal, Paris, and New York before setting off on his own as a designer in 1964. He preferred to work for celebrities and individual clients, choosing not to create collections for mass-market consumers. Like Mollie Parnis and James Galanos, Scaasi acquired a circle of loyal clients. His set included six First Ladies, among them, Jackie Kennedy and Mamie Eisenhower, as well as famous movie stars of the day.

Catering to Hollywood, he was certainly theatrical; one of his best-known looks was a shockingly revealing suit that Barbra Streisand wore to the Oscars in 1969. He favored bold details paired with classic silhouettes and regularly designed for both life and the screen. Aside from his designs, Scaasi also gained attention for his clever and biting comments that playfully insulted clients and Americans in general.

The “First Grandmother” may not be known as a fashion icon, but she has certainly been a fixture in the White House. She served as the Second Lady (wife of the vice president) for eight years during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, First Lady for four years when her husband George H. W. Bush was president, and mother of the president for eight years when President George W. Bush was in office in the early 2000s. In fact, the White House was one of the homes where the Bush family lived the longest. They moved twenty-nine times in forty-four years to accommodate George H.W.’s business and political career.

She and George had been together for the majority of their lives when he was elected president. Barbara was born in 1925 and met George at a dance when she was 16. They were engaged within a couple of years and married in 1945. After serving as a pilot in WWII, George attended Yale. Together they had six children, including one, Robin, who died as a child from Leukemia. From the loss of Robin, the pair developed a new, stronger sense of empathy.

Barbara Bush and Brooke Astor both shared this empathy through philanthropy. As Second and First Lady, Barbara championed literacy, and she continues to do so through the Barbara Bush Foundation. Brooke Astor, the American socialite who died in 2007, aged 105, made a career of donating money. She inherited an enormous fortune from her third husband, Vincent Astor, heir of the famous Astor Family. By transferring the family’s Gilded Age wealth into the modern era, she transformed the role of the “old money,” ultra rich in American society. In her husband’s honor, she created the Vincent Astor Foundation and used it to give away close to $195 million. Her primary focus was improving the welfare of New York City. By day she travelled across the city, visiting the organizations she supported, and by night she attended lavish parties wearing gowns such as this.

This gown, donated to the collection in 1994, was worn to several international parties. She wore it to both the British Embassy and the French Embassy and across the pond she toted it to Hatfield House in England, which was home to several members of royalty and built in 1611. Although this gown specifically was never owned by a First Lady, never fear; Brooke Astor also wore it to the White House.


The designers, owners, and donors of these gowns each have had their own impact on American history, and between the politics behind them and the style of design they represent, the gowns themselves are a melding of worlds. Art meets government. Influence meets aesthetics. The same can be said for the First Ladies who wore them. Although they are not elected, First Ladies are fixtures in American politics. But instead of policymakers, they are era-definers. The causes they champion and the clothing they wear mark the culture of the country during their time in the White House.


Barbara Bush

“Arnold Scaasi dies at 85; designer to first ladies and movie stars.” Los Angeles Times. Last modified August 4, 2015. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Berger, Marilyn. “Brooke Astor, 105, First Lady of Philanthropy, Dies.” The New York Times: Obituaries. Last modified August 13, 2007. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Black, Allida. “Barbara Pierce Bush.” The White House. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Feitelberg, Rosemary and Lorna Koski. “Arnold Scaasi, American Designer and Confidant to First Ladies, Dies at 85.” Women’s Wear Daily. Last modified August 4, 2015. Accessed July 26, 2016.

“The First Ladies at the Smithsonian: Barbara Bush: First Grandmother.” Smithsonian: The National Museum of American History. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Jacobs, Alexandra. “Arnold Scaasi Dies at 85; Dressed Stars and Socialites, His ‘Scaasi Girls.’” The New York Times: N.Y./Region. Last modified August 4, 2015. Accessed July 26, 2016.

 Morris, Bob. “Scaasi, Scaasi, Everywhere.” The New York Times: Style. Last modified October 6, 1996. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Schiro, Anne-Marie. “The 41st President: Fashion; Following a Tough Act With Impeccable Taste.” The New York Times: U.S. Last modified January 21, 1989. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Steinmetz, Katy. “Belles of the Ball: An Insider’s Look at Inaugural Gowns: Barbara Bush, 1989: A Close Call.” Time: Fashion & Beauty. Last modified January 18, 2013. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Yaeger, Lynn. “Remembering Arnold Scaasi, Legendary Fashion Designer to the First Ladies, Barbra Streisand, and Liz Taylor.” Vogue. Last modified August 4, 2015. Accessed July 26, 2016.

by Kerry Ulm

First Lady Fashion: Part III, Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan’s gown came into the Costume Collection’s possession not quite as easily as Lady Bird Johnson’s did.  Always a fan of fashion, Mrs Reagan was certainly interested in donating her clothing to museums and collections—but not necessarily to Ohio State.nreaganwiki

In the early Eighties, the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards were founded to celebrate great designers and journalists. In support of the new awards, Mrs. Reagan decided to donate some of her clothing to suitable groups across the country. She put Ann Keagy of Parsons School of Design in charge of the process.

Nancy’s goal was to inspire the youth, in so many words. She wanted “to provide these promising young students with the opportunity to study the workmanship of established American designers,” as she said in a January 1982 telegram to Mrs. Keagy.

She also listed for Keagy some potential recipients, which included well-known museums like The Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as smaller ones like The Chicago Historical Society, The Phoenix Art Museum, and The Texas Fashion Collection, which was and still is operated by the University of North Texas.

Hoping to acquire a garment for the Costume Collection, the curator wrote to Mrs. Reagan in the White House, whose office forwarded the letter to Ann Keagy.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Keagy was underwhelmed by the location and stature of Ohio State’s collection at the time. “Institutions were chosen because they have the finest facilities,” and they “are able to readily show the garments to students, historians and the general public,” she explained in her reply. “Another prime consideration was the geographic location of the museums in order to serve the greatest number of people across the country.” Poor Columbus.

In 1984, the collection again attempted to acquire a gown, writing to the White House like before. And, again, was unsuccessful.

“I completely understand Mrs. Reagan’s wanting to keep the beautiful Galanos second inaugural gown,” wrote the curator in response to their rejection. “If, however, there is a garment in the First Lady’s wardrobe that she might someday no longer have need of, would you keep in mind the growing Historic Costume Collection here at The Ohio State University.”

Eight years later, in February of 1992, they received this gown.

It was designed by James Galanos, “Jimmy” as Nancy called him. Long green and blue panels are cinched at the waist by a tight sash at the top of the skirt. Thick shoulder pads mimic these bold lines. Out of the Sixties and into the Eighties, Nancy Reagan’s dress stands in contrast to Lady Bird Johnson’s. No soft florals; instead, strong color block stripes.

For Nancy Reagan, fashion was natural. Like her husband Ronald, she came from Hollywood and an acting background, working under the name Nancy Davis. The two had met through the industry. (As a funny nod to their future as Cold War political champs, they first met thanks to communism. Another actress, also named Nancy Davis, had been blacklisted, and the future Nancy Reagan was having trouble sorting out the confusion. She went to speak with the president of the Screen Actors Guild, who happened to be Ronald Reagan.)

Anne Frances Robbins was born in 1921 to an actress mother and a car salesman father. They divorced soon after, and young “Nancy,” as Anne Frances was called, was sent to live with her aunt and uncle. Her mother traveled around the country for acting gigs, inspiring Nancy’s future career. After attending the Girls’ Latin School and Smith College, Nancy began acting professionally onstage, and she was eventually hired by MGM for screen. She moved out to Hollywood and worked for several years, befriending notable stars of day. She met Ronald Reagan in 1949, and the two married in a small ceremony in 1952.

Ronald Reagan slowly transitioned from actor to politician by hosting a series called “General Electric Theater.” This also correlated with his switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. By 1967, he was governor of California, and in 1981, he became president.

As First Lady during the Eighties, Nancy Reagan was a fixture of the Cold War and its resulting political shifts. While the Reagans pushed for American self-reliance in contrast to communism, she wore expensive gowns, but didn’t advertise their designers. She chose classic pieces that were strong, but not overly fashion-forward, and she was perhaps the most careful First Lady about her appearance to date. She was 5’ 4”, slight, and precise. And above all, she wore red.

On the day the American hostages were released in Iran, rising First Lady Nancy Reagan wore Galanos. Her attire for the inaugural ball was a heavily beaded, one-shouldered gown that was considered by some to be quite revealing for a woman of her role and age. The inaugural gown of 1981 was one of the most iconic Galanos designs that Nancy Reagan wore, but their partnership had begun years before and continued for years afterward. She and the designer were symbiotic. His gowns helped define her style; her style helped define his career.

Her wardrobe outside of the formal events was carefully selected, too. “These clothes were perfect for her lifestyle, and she knew exactly what she was doing,” commented Galanos in 2007.

Galanos creations were fantastically costly. He worked not in New York like most designers, but in Los Angeles, where he curated a select group of clients that topped the rosters of both Hollywood and politics. Naturally, his premier client belonged to both worlds.

Born to a Greek family in New Jersey, Galanos grew up sketching. He started at the Traphagen School of Fashion after high school, but dropped out to learn on the job. He then moved out to Hollywood as a sketch artist, spent time in Paris as an apprentice designer, and finally settled in Los Angeles creating collections of his own. These days, he is retired, and with his designing days behind him, he is a photographer. By using the same fabrics and textures as he did in his clothing designs, he creates abstract images that have been featured in several shows.

As a woman of the fashion world, Nancy Reagan is remembered for her strong attention to style and classic adherence to looking pulled together. She achieved this reputation with the help of Galanos, but she was also a strict curator of her own wardrobe.



Nancy Reagan

Givhan, Robin. “The quiet defiance behind Nancy Reagan’s high-glamour fashion.” The Washington Post. Last modified March 7, 2016. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Kalter, Suzy. “If Nancy Reagan Makes It to the White House, So Will Designer James Galanos.” People Magazine. Last modified June 2, 1980. Accessed July 26, 2016.,,20076639,00.html

Percha, Julie. “Nancy Reagan, Former First Lady, Dies at 94.” ABC News. Last modified March 6, 2016. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Ward, Kat. “A Look Back at the Best Style of Nancy Reagan.” New York Magazine: The Cut. Last modified March 6, 2016. Accessed July 26, 2016.

By Kerry Ulm


First Lady Fashion: Part II, Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson

Each First Lady garment has had its own journey and arrival at the costume collection. Mrs. Harding’s is unique in its obscurity; no one knows how it got from Florence Harding to Madge Cooper Guthery. The paths of the others are clearer. A glamorous socialite donated Barbara Bush’s gown and Nancy Reagan’s was one of several garments allotted to museums. But Lady Bird Johnson donated her dress herself, and her exchanges with the collection are most personal.

 “When and to what event was the garment worn?” asks the form that all donors fill out.

“On my birthday, Dec. 22, 1971, at the Argyle Club, San Antone’s. Lyndon gave a party for me,” said Lady Bird Johnson regarding her gown in February 1990. The Collection had contacted her office at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, Texas, asking if maybe she had a gown to spare that she would like to donate. One easily came to her mind.

ladybird-web “At the present time, I have in my office an evening dress, ivory lace over beige silk from Mollie Parnis Boutique which I have worn on many occasions. It is a timeless classic — quite handsome, to my thinking. Unfortunately I am now too fat for it!”

Her letter, typed in brown ink on LBJ Ranch letterhead, goes on to explain that there were a couple of other gowns that could work, too, depending on what the collection wanted. An Adele Simpson, another Mollie Parnis, but they decided to go with the initial one.

Within a month, the gown was sent.

“We made the decision not to have the dress cleaned,” explained Carole Bryant, Lady Bird’s Secretary, in the accompanying note, “we have had varying luck with cleaning facilities here in Austin and felt that you would have a more reliable source.”

The gown has long, light sleeves and a nude slip underneath. The cream-colored overlay is a delicate floral motif. Its hook and eye closures are strategically placed, following the shapes of flower motifs as they cover the back zipper, rather than breaking the composition of the flowers with a harsh, straight line that simply cutting the fabric would have done. It seems fitting that Lady Bird would have had a gown like this.

Born in 1912 on a plantation in Karnack, Texas, Lady Bird spent her summers outdoors with relatives in Alabama. She grew up loving nature and brought this appreciation with her to the White House. As a champion of beautification movements, she promoted the planting of flowers and greenery along highways and in urban centers for visitors and residents to enjoy. “Where flowers bloom, so does hope,” she would often say.

She was not born with the name “Lady Bird.” Claudia Alta Taylor shed her birth name when a nurse claimed that she looked “purty as a ladybird.” From then on, her family and friends knew her as “Lady”, “Bird”, or all together “Lady Bird”.

Young Lady Bird grew up so shy that despite being on track to be valedictorian in high school, she finished third in her class, intentionally scoring poorly so that she wouldn’t have to give a speech at commencement. After graduating from a junior college, St. Mary’s Episcopal College for Women, and then from the University of Texas, she met and married future president Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1934.

Like Florence Harding, Lady Bird Johnson worked hard for her husband’s political career. When she met him, he had a job in Washington as a Congressional secretary, and as he moved onto other political posts, she kept his offices running while he was away during WWII and after a heart attack in 1955.

While campaigning with the Kennedys during the 1960 election season as LBJ ran for the vice-presidency, Lady Bird became familiar with the duties of the First Lady, but never did she expect to take on the role herself. However, she was present in the motorcade when JFK was shot and killed, and within hours as her husband took the presidential oath, she became the new First Lady.

As wife of an unexpected president, she was keen to use her role carefully. Her time in office was marked by old Southern hospitality within an era that rolled from change between the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, and the Vietnam War.

As she came more fully into the spotlight, so did her clothing. She often wore designs by Mollie Parnis, who was a favorite among First Ladies as well as of Queen Elizabeth II.

When she wasn’t designing for celebrities, Mollie Parnis was mingling with them. She was known for toting her own collection of personalities, most notably journalists. Perhaps this is what sealed the friendship between her and Lady Bird, who had studied journalism as an undergraduate. That and the fact that they both supported beautification movements, of which, Lady Bird’s pet city was Washington D.C, and Parnis’ were New York and Jerusalem.

The child of an Austrian immigrant family, Parnis had some of the simplest roots of the First Lady designers. She went to high school, but regretted never studying further, and because of this felt a little uncomfortable intellectually in the company she kept. But education didn’t limit her designs. Despite lacking suitable sketching skills, she went into business, first with her husband and then, when he died, on her own.

Lady Bird didn’t have the same fame to her wardrobe that Jackie Kennedy had had, and she wasn’t known for taking risks, but together she and Mollie Parnis maintained her simple Southern tastes amid the whirl of the Sixties.



Lady Bird Johnson

Berger, Marilyn. “Mollie Parnis, Designer, Dies in Her 90’s.” The New York Times N.Y./Region. Last modified July 19, 1992. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Black, Allida. “Claudia Taylor (Lady Bird) Johnson.” The White House. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Folkart, Burt A. “Mollie Parnis; Dress Designer for the Famous.” Los Angeles Times. Last modified July 20, 1992. Accessed July 26, 2016.

“Obituary: Lady Bird Johnson.” BBC News. Last modified July 12, 2007. Accessed July 26, 2016.

“Portrait of a First Lady: Lady Bird Johnson, The Early Years, December 1912 – November 1934.” PBS. Accessed July 26, 2016.

By Kerry Ulm

First Lady Fashion: Part I, Florence Harding

First Ladies and the Gowns They Wore

by Kerry Ulm

In the Historic Costume & Textiles Collection’s (HCTC) storage rooms in Campbell Hall, all garments are cared for equally. Some more fragile pieces are set apart and laid in drawers, but most are hung beside each other, lined up according to decade.

Peek into the drawers and the sections for the 1920s, 1960s, and the 1980s, however, and you’ll find four gowns in particular. One is covered in heavy beads, another with cream-colored flowers. A third is marked by vertical stripes, and a fourth has a fabulous blue skirt.

Four different designers created these dresses. They were worn by different women, and given to the collection by different donors. Yet, they all have something in common. Each has a connection to a former First Lady of the United States.

Over the years, the office of the First Lady has been developed and changed by the women who have occupied it. Just as their politician husbands have had to keep an eye on their own appearance and mannerisms for the sake of swaying voters, so, too, the First Ladies have become known for the clothes that they wore. For some, fashion was personally important, for others, not as much, but in all cases, what they wore reflected the era in which they lived in the White House. Interpreting these eras were the designers behind their most notable gowns and outfits. Together, First Ladies and the designers they grew close to, created iconic views of history through fashion.


Florence Hardingflorence_kling_harding-01

The oldest of these First Lady gowns belonged to Florence Harding and dates from 1922 or 1923. It is more frail than the others and weighed down by heavy beading. When it is not being displayed, the gown is stored horizontally, resting on a long, wide sling of fabric inside of a drawer. Unlike the other gowns, the designer of this one is unknown. Mrs Harding was in the White House before the significance of the designer/First Lady relationship came about.

What it lacks in designer identification, the Harding dress makes up for with weathered personality. Little clues from its long life point to its wearers’ activities. Several dark, red-brown stains—the sort that could have came from dribbles at a White House dinner—stand out on the front against the green-blue fabric. They’re camouflaged by the dark beading, which, at several points, has replacement beads that flare in brighter colors.

Florence came to the White House in 1921 when her husband, Warren G. Harding, took office after Woodrow Wilson. After a post-WWI recession, the Harding presidency began to see the upsurge of the Roaring Twenties. As First Lady, Florence reopened the White House to the public, regularly hosting garden parties for veterans and poker parties in the library (complete with illegal liquor!) This gown was likely worn to these events. But, her stay in the White House was short. President Harding died in office in August of 1923 and Florence passed away just over a year later in November of 1924.

However short their time together in the White House, its doubtful Harding would have made it there at all given today’s climate of extremely close scrutiny of presidential candidates and their, as well as their family’s, personal lives. Florence and Warren each had their own less-than-spotless reputations back in their native Marion, Ohio.

When she was 19, Florence quit school at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music after one year to elope with her first husband, Henry DeWolfe. They separated soon after but had a son together, Eugene, who was raised by his grandfather.

At the start of her second marriage, Florence was again gossip fodder. When she and Warren married quite legally and respectably in 1891, the masses of Marion were whispering about how the bride was shockingly five years older than the groom.

The groom himself went on to create his own drama. Warren is known to have had at least two extramarital affairs, one with Carrie Fulton Phillips, the wife of a friend, and the other with Nan Britton, the daughter of a friend. In recent years, DNA testing has proven that Harding fathered Nan’s daughter.

Given these factors, it’s no surprise that the Hardings weren’t known to be a particularly affectionate couple. What they lacked in tenderness, though, the pair made up for in teamwork.

Florence was a fierce force behind her husband’s success. She began developing this strength by first looking after herself. After her failed marriage to DeWolfe, Florence supported herself financially by using the skills she learned during her time at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music to teach piano lessons to Marion residents. Warren had acquired many leadership positions in Marion on his own, and with Florence he was even more successful. Armed with both a strong will and a shrewd business aptitude, Florence oversaw the local newspaper he owned, The Daily Star. Eventually she exercised these talents on a national scale, helping push him along to the White House.

Florence only owned this gown for a year or two before she passed away. It then entered an unknown route of ownership. Likely it was handed around for several decades before eventually coming into the possession of its only other known owner, Madge Cooper Guthery, another famed resident of Marion.

Born in 1910, fifty years after Florence Harding, Madge Cooper Guthery may not have held the national fame that Florence did, but she did hold her own on the local scale. Guthery was an esteemed radio host who, by the time she passed away at 99-years-old in 2009, had come to be known as “the First Lady of Radio.”

She attended Ohio State, graduating with degrees in English and Biology. Her true passion was writing, and while in school, she filled her elective slots with writing courses. After teaching for several years, she took a job in 1941 at a local radio station. At the time, Guthery had become interested in the position because she saw it as an opportunity to learn more about writing. It ended up being the start of a fifty-year career in Marion radio.

As a radio host, she was one of few women in the medium. Throughout her life, she remained passionate about education and in her later years, she both learned and supported learning. She continued her own education hands-on as a world-traveler, and she supported the education of others through various philanthropic means, including supporting her alma mater, The Ohio State University.


Florence Harding

Black, Allida. “Florence Kling Harding.” The White House. Accessed July 26, 2016.

“First Lady Biography: Florence Harding.” National First Ladies’ Library. Accessed July 26, 2016.

“Florence Harding.” The White House Historical Association. Accessed July 26, 2016.

“Madge Lily Guthery.” The Columbus Dispatch Obituaries. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Nasaw, David. “Worst Lady: The Wife of Warren Harding May Have Been the First Lady of Deceit.” The New York Times Books. Last modified August 2, 1998. Accessed July 26, 2016.

Pierce, Bess, David Collins and Rich J. Johnson. Moline: City of Mills (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 1998), vii.

Scott Spears. “Scott Spears interviewing Madge Copper Guthery (7/16/2006).” Accessed July 1, 2016.

“Warren G. Harding (1865 – 1923).” The Miller Center at the University of Virginia. Accessed July 26, 2016.


The Piecing of the American Quilt

“Anyone who works on a quilt, who devotes her time, energy, creativity, and passion to that art, learns to value the work of her hands. And as any quilter will tell you, a quilter’s quilting friends are some of the dearest, most generous, and most supportive people she knows.” ~ Jennifer Chiaverini

This post focuses on the tradition of quilts and, in particular, the  red, white and blue star quilt top featured above. While quilting is not strictly an American past time, quilts are often seen as a quintessential piece of Americana. The red, white and blue quilt top featured in this post was recently rediscovered within our collection and seemed an appropriate item of discovery for Clothes Lines as we celebrate the 4th of July this week.

The origins of quilting and piecing are not specifically known but probably dates from before written history. It can be certain that economy and the need for warmth were major stimuli in the development of these sewing techniques. Multiple layers of fabric sewn together are stronger and warmer than one, and fabric remnants could be pieced together rather than simply discarded. Quilts not only provided warm covers for beds, they also served as covers for drafty doors and windows.

Quilting was an important part of most women’s household duties, particularly in the nineteenth century. Even after industrialization, the needs of the average family for reliable and affordable furnishings kept quilts in demand despite the availability of cheaper ready-made blankets. This was due to the fact that quilts were still economical due to the use of scraps and worn materials and were more decorative than the less expensive ready-made blankets. Of equal importance to the perpetuation of the quilt making tradition was the opportunity to socialize that events like the sewing bee provided.

Addie Community Quilting Bee in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Sylva Herald and Joe McClure. Image taken from

Addie Community Quilting Bee in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Sylva Herald and Joe McClure. Image taken from

Quilting bees combined the practical with the social. They provided women an opportunity to socialize with one another and exchange everything from recipes and quilting patterns to news and gossip. In some rural communities, the quilting bee may have been one of the only sources of social contact women had with each other. While quilting bees could be held during other times of the year, the majority of quilting bees were held during the winter. This was due to the lack of agricultural work that needed to be completed during the colder winter months. It is important to point out that many hours of work were completed prior to the bee. Women had to assemble the pieces of material, cut them into patterns and assemble them to make the “top”. It was this “top” that was then assembled by the participants in the bee into the completed quilt. Numerous quilts could be completed in a single day during a bee rather than the weeks it may take a woman to complete a single quilt on her own.

During the nineteenth century, it was common for a young girl to complete a baker’s dozen of quilts prior to her engagement. Girl’s pieced various tops together that would be a part of her hope chest for when she would eventually marry. A young woman’s engagement was commonly announced at a quilting bee, at which time the completed quilt tops would be sewn together. The tops were saved for years to be completed upon her engagement due to the fact that the real expense of quilting was wadding and fabric needed to finish the quilt. The thirteenth quilt in a girl’s collection was traditionally a “bride’s quilt.” These were generally all white and stitched with hearts. There was a saying that said, “If a girl has not made a quilt before she was 21, no man will want to marry her.”

OSU HCTC Star of Bethlehem quilt top

OSU HCTC Star of Bethlehem quilt top

The quilt featured in this post is of an unknown origin. There are no identifying documents that correspond with this artifact in the Ohio State collection. Suppositions can be made, however, based on the fabric used in its design. The bulk of the fabric pieces used to create this quilt top appear to date between 1880 and 1910. It is possible that this patriotic color palette was inspired by the centennial of Ohio’s statehood. This would date the quilt top from around 1903. This top features a “Star of Bethlehem” pattern that is unusual in that it does not have concentric circles of similar fabrics circling the center. Stars are a common motif used on quilts and the “Star of Bethlehem” is a particularly important star pattern. In its original form it is a single central star made up of eight points, sometimes measuring as much as eight to nine feet from tip to tip. A star pattern is not easy to execute. Precision is extremely important in the cutting and sewing as any inaccuracy is multiplied as pieces are added. If poorly pieced, the quilt will not lie flat when finished. An intricate star pattern was one way for a woman to show her needlework skills. This example from our collection is not particularly well executed, which may be why is was not assembled into a completed quilt. While this quilt top is beautiful, many of the pieces were cut on the bias and the overall design does not lay flat. This would make its final assembly especially challenging.


Orlofsky, Patsy and Myron. Quilts in America. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Quilting in America. “History of Quilts: an American Folk Art.” Accessed July 1,2016.

National Park Service. “Quilt Discovery Experience.” Accessed July 1,2016.

Disposable Fashion

Exhibit case of paper dresses featured in the Thompson Gallery

Exhibit case of paper dresses featured in the Thompson Gallery

In 1966, the Scott Paper Company introduced two paper dresses to promote its new line of “Color Explosion” paper products. The dresses came in two patterns and were a simple A-line shape that could be cut with scissors to the desired hem length. A customer could send the company $1.25 and receive a dress, along with coupons for Scott’s toilet paper, paper towels, and napkins. The dresses were made of cellulose pulp that was reinforced with a nylon webbing to improve durability and drape. The company was so overwhelmed by orders that it abruptly ended the promotion after just six months. Other manufacturers took up the mantle of paper dress manufacture, however, and the fad continued for the next three years.

Campbell Soup Company created the “Souper Dress” that is printed with a repeat of their popular tomato soup cans. It piggybacked off the success of pop artist Andy Warhol, whose artwork entitled, Campbell’s Soup Cans, debuted years earlier in 1962. The Yellow Pages company also produced a dress in order to promote their phone directory publication. Paper dresses were not limited to corporate advertising, however, as traditional manufacturers, as well as new start-ups, began to produce paper dresses in various prints and patterns.


Textile designer Julie Tomchin remarked to Life magazine in 1966, “After all, who is going to do laundry in space?” The space race of the 1960’s was an important influence on fashion during this decade, particularly in the collections of André Courrèges and Pierre Cardin. People, such as Tomchin, had begun to consider what the future might look like and how people might dress in their new environment. Disposable paper clothing could be the answer. Some paper dresses, such as the one featured in this post that depicts the image of the Mercury Atlas Rocket, directly reference this growing interest in space exploration.

This dress is one in a series of five designed by artist Harry Gordon for London Paper Dresses Ltd. The five poster dress designs included the ‘Mystic Eye Dress’, ‘Giant Rocket Dress’, ‘Rose Dress’, ‘Pussy Cat Dress’ and ‘Hand Dress’. They were released in 1968. The rocket depicted is the Mercury Atlas Rocket. The Mercury missions were the first manned American space flights. The dress also includes a Velcro closure on the shoulder, a direct result of textile innovations related to space travel.



Mars of Asheville (NC) was one of the major manufacturers of paper dresses during their brief period of popularity. Mars of Asheville, claimed to be “The Pioneer in Disposable Fashion.” This post features a cap-sleeved paper dress with multi-colored paisley and floral motifs that was part of their “Waste Basket Boutique” collection. The fabric care labels in these dresses state:

“Do not wash. This material is fire resistant unless washed or dry cleaned. Then it becomes dangerously flammable when dry.”

yellow pages magazine


The Yellow Pages was another “Waste Basket Boutique” dress by Mars of Asheville. It is a yellow/gold non-woven fabric with a collage print design of yellow pages telephone book ads. It was available by sending in your request with “one dollar each including postage.” It, like the others, arrived with care and cut-to-hem instructions, as well as a convenient re-order form.



Most of the dresses in this exhibit are very simple A-line shifts with little to no construction complexity. They are sleeve and collar-less and fasten simply with ties or Velcro. This dress, however, is unusual in that it is fully fashioned with a mandarin collar, long sleeves with cuffs, patch pockets and a back zipper closure.

The fad for paper fashion was ultimately short-lived as concerns about pollution and waste began to emerge. Books, such as Rachel Carson’s, Silent Spring, drew attention to the health risks of pesticides and manufacturing. Subsequently, the interest in fast disposable fashion began to wane and by 1969 most disposable clothing transitioned from articles of fashion to more practical uses, such as disposable sheets and scrubs still used in the medical field today.

A Very Red and Green Scaasi Christmas

In 1997 Arnold Scaasi donated 56 garments to the Historic Costume & Textiles Collection. This was a perfect opportunity to feature a retrospective exhibition of his work which in 1998 became the exhibition, The Joy of Dressing Up.. We also held a fundraiser dinner with him as guest of honor. Scaasi and curator Gayle Strege chose the garments featured in the exhibition together, which included a visit to him and his partner of many years, Parker Ladd, in their town home in Manhattan the summer before the exhibition. The dining room was painted red. A few months ago, Arnold Scaasi passed away on August 4th in New York, and we thought it fitting to celebrate his life and sense of color and opulence during this festive season.

red-scaasi-short-wtrmk Red was Arnold Scaasi’s favorite color and he had several examples in his collections over the years. We  are featuring two of my favorites in the collection. Both were in the exhibition, and the evening gown was also featured in his first book, A Cut Above. The short red lace cocktail dress is from the Summer 1987 season and you can clearly see the overly large shoulder pads of the period. The elongated torso tops a tiered skirt of 11 alternating layers of ruffled lace with sequins and stiff red net.


The strapless evening gown is from the Fall 1992 collection. It is a matelassé fabric with a shiny lurex yarn woven into the floral pattern. The dress itself is narrow, but has a voluminous bustle attached to the rear, reminiscent of some gowns from the 1950s when Scaasi first came on the fashion scene.


1997.17.16-F-crop-wtrmkThe green evening gown of gathered silk taffeta with puffs at the sleeves and neckline, hip and flared hem was in the exhibition and also featured in A Cut Above. 1997.17.3-web-wtrmkIt was part of the Fall 1988 collection.


The green corded lace dress is a complement to the short red lace dress. It too has long sleeves but has an off-the-shoulder V neckline and a longer flared trumpet skirt.

Like the strapless red gown, it was from the Fall 1992 season. One wonders if perhaps Scaasi might have had Christmas on his mind in putting these two together in the same collection.

The Scaasi dresses featured in this post were chosen due to their red and green color which have traditionally been associated with the Christmas season, but just how long have red and green been the “official” colors of Christmas? Turns out, it may be longer than one originally supposes. Long before Christmas began to be celebrated on December 25, various other cultures, such as the Celts, celebrated the winter solstice by decorating hearths and homes with evergreen branches. Evergreens do not die during the winter thus symbolizing the eternal aspect of the divine as well as the approaching longer days and return of spring. Several groups celebrated this return of sun, such as the Roman festival of Saturnalia and the Persian celebration of their sun god, Mithras.

ADAM AND EVE-APPLE-SNAKE+FRAME-9X6With the spread of Christianity throughout Europe some of these earlier traditions were brought into the new Christian celebrations. For example, during the 1300’s the Feast Day of Adam and Eve was celebrated on December 24 with churches putting on productions of “Paradise Plays.” These plays depicted the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from Grace in the Garden of Eden, but also anticipated humankind’s ultimate redemption with the birth of the Redeemer. The play needed an apple to be picked from a tree, of course, and as no ripe apple trees could be found during winter, an apple was hung from a pine tree, which was still green. (Sounds like hanging red ball ornaments on Christmas trees today.)

HollyThis, along with the popularity of holly as an evergreen decoration which has red berries, led to the association of the color red along green with the Christmas holiday. So as you dress up in your cheeriest ensembles this holiday season just remember, that red and green ensemble you’re wearing is a festive nod to fall of humankind from Paradise–and hope for redemption.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The 70s Have Made A Comeback!

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It is a well-known fact that fashion repeats itself and this fall the biggest trend in fashion has been the revival of 1970s fashion.  We saw it all from suede jackets to flare jeans.  A lot changed for fashion in the seventies.  This was the first time that women’s hemlines varied from piece to piece.  In the previous decades, skirts and dresses usually ended around the same length.  In the 60s they were miniskirts, the 50s hit just below the knee, the 40s hit at the knee, and the 30s were a bit longer than the 50s.  However, in the 70s there were three prominent hemlines, so women really had a choice.  The hemlines varied from miniskirts, to knee length, to maxi skirts.  This was really neat because it gave women more of a choice of what to wear.  If a woman was uncomfortable showing off most of their leg, they could wear a longer skirt without looking odd in comparison to others.  That was a great step towards freedom of self-expression through dress, something we as a society value a lot today.
Two really common fabrics used in the seventies were suede and denim.  These were seen in all aspects of dress, throughout menswear and womenswear.  Each were seen on every item of clothing imaginable.  Bellbottoms were a huge seventies fashion staple and they could be found in both denim and suede.  Suede was also a very important fabric because it demonstrates some of the most prominent colors of the seventies.  The seventies were a decade that favored fairly earthy colors, many of which were found on the suede pieces.  Suede tops, pants, and jackets were more often than not a variation of brown.  These colors included reddish browns, light yellow browns, tans, and more.  Color is always a good indicator of what time period certain clothes have come from, so it is great to be able to link an influential fabric with a prominent color.
Other colors that were pretty common in the seventies include colors like apricot, avocado, burnt orange, dark greens, and browns.  These can be seen in the widely used paisley print.  Paisley was also everywhere in the seventies.  It was incredibly common especially on neckties and blouses.  The pattern captured the chic, easy going, bohemian trend that was popular during the 70s.  Paisley made a comeback last spring and the print has been dominating the fashion scene since.  The return of paisley to street style last spring was a bit of a forecast for what was to come this fall, the seventies fashions all around us, in everything from silhouettes to colors.