Pageant Shows Gowns of the First Ladies

by Laurel | February 24th, 2012

Note: I was aware of Mrs. Walter Thompson’s involvement in pageantry, especially of the Holyoke semi-centennial celebration — a huge event — but the pageant described here was new to me. Mrs. Walter Thompson, nee Emily Binns Topham, was born in Scotland in 1886. Emily lived with her family in Lawrence, MA where she likely met her future husband. Interesting that Emily was a 1907 graduate of Mount Holyoke College giving her a personal connection to western Mass, while at the same time her husband Walter had strong family ties to Holyoke since many of his extended family settled in Holyoke upon immigrating from Scotland. Some associated Holyoke surnames include Thomson (different spelling, same line), Miles, Alexander, Simpson, Jolly. Emily’s daughters went on to attend and graduate from Mount Holyoke College. Upon the death of her husband, Emily taught for an unknown period of time at Northfield Mount Hermon. Emily’s husband Walter is my first cousin twice removed. Communication with anyone connected to this line is always welcome.

24 February 1929

Mrs. Walter Thompson of Holyoke Has Copied Dresses in National Museum at Washington For Use In Historical Production — Martha Washington Wore Salmon-Colored Silk, Not Quaker Gray.

Amherst, February 23. — Women of western Massachusetts are having the unusual opportunity of viewing the fashions of the past 140 years in America as they are recreated and paraded before the public in the historical pageant written by Mrs. Walter Thompson of Holyoke. This pageant, which states an exhibition of reproductions of the famous collection of gowns worn by mistresses of the White house, now in the National Museum at Washington, was presented at the last meeting of the Amherst Woman’s Club under the direction of Mrs. Thompson.

She is the author of numerous other pageants, notably “The Road to Bethlehem” presented by the Hampden County Women’s club last December in Springfield; the pageant given at Holyoke’s semi-centennial celebration and that given at the Boston Opera House commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Order of the Eastern Star in Massachusetts.

Helen Herron Taft (Mrs. William Howard Taft)

Helen Herron Taft (Mrs. William Howard Taft)

Original Costumes Copied

The fashioned pageant has been [resented by the Daughters of the American Revolution at Holyoke and was also staged at Pittsfield. On those occasions, however, only such costumes are were available among the townspeople were used. Mrs. Thompson has no copied the originals as far as possible and it was these new reproductions which were worn for the first time at Amherst.

Inaugural gowns worn by wives of the Presidents are in the original collection in all instances where they could be secured. Sometimes that was not possible and another gown of a first lady has been substituted. In more modern days since the inaugural ball was discontinued by President Wilson, there was naturally no ball gown to be worn.

Mrs. Wilson gave to the collection the gown which she first wore at the Peace conference in Paris. Ms. Harding presented the dress she wore at the first White House reception after her husband had entered office. Mrs. Coolidge’s gown has only recently been placed in the exhibition at Washington. It is the exquisite white brocaded satin model with a court train, which she wore at the diplomatic reception December 13, 1921, the first public affair after her husband succeeded to the presidency.

Mrs. Thompson connection of dresses follows the originals in style, color and material. Such details as hand-painting, embroidery and patterns of brocade could only be reproduced by the expenditure of thousands of dollars. To see the models of the colonial dames step forth on the state with a quaint, old-time curtsey is literally to turn back the pages of fashion and history into the past.

Contrary to the popular conception of Martha Washington in Quaker gray, her gown in the original collection is of salmon colored silk, said to have been brought from London before the Revolution. It is painted with bouquets, streamers of purple ribbon and butterflies. A large embroidered muslin fichu ruffled with lace and held with a brooch adorns the waist.

The gown of Abigail Adams, wife of the second President of the United States and the first mistress to live in the White House, was worn at the court of St. James. It is of dark blue crepe de chine, trimmed with self color embroidery and made with a basque full gathered skirt, long sleeves and a modest V neck line adorned with only a lace jabot.

Thomas Jefferson’s household was directed by his daughter, Mrs. Martha Randolph, wife of a Virginia governor. White lace over pink fashioned her dress, and worn with it is a black India shawl falling to the skirt. Dolly Madison, the daring heroine of many a story, set the fashions for years and was noted for her brilliant costumes. her gown, which is on exhibit, is created of lemon colored satin brocaded with silver wheat. The tightly laced basque has a square neck. Valenciennes lace ruffles edge an overdress forming a train, and beneath is a shorter underskirt showing at the front of cream satin embroidered in roses and morning glories.

Mrs. James Monroe is represented as dressed in heavy white silk brocaded in rose patterns with the panels of the skirt adorned with cunning puffed roses. Mrs. Andrew Jackson wears a severe black dress lightened only by a lace fichu.

The exhibition gown of Mrs. John Tyler is of cream colored gauze made in three tiers of ruffles and worn over hoops. A beautiful border design of colored flowers, tight basque just falling off the shoulders and an exquisite lace scarf complete a striking costume.

Mrs. James K. Polk’s model wears brocaded silk, again made with a basque. Her sleeves are mere puffs and the front of the dress is festooned with lace and decorated with rosettes and bows of satin.

Royal Purple for Mrs. Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln, as the wife of a President known for his simplicity, wears a gown of royal purple velvet, somewhat surprising. White colored silk piping affords decided contrast. The low corsage reveals the lovely rounded shoulders, of which it is said Mrs. Lincoln was extremely proud. The skirt is full, extending into a sweeping train. With this costume she wore a wreath of purple pansies in her hair and carried a purple fan and parasol.

Another striking inaugural gown is that of Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, who wore silver brocade fashioned into a low cut bodice and trained skirt. It is told that the emperor of China resented the material to Mrs. Grant. Accompanying the gown is a shoulder drapery of rare old point lace.

Tradition says that Mrs. Grant’s successor, Mrs. Rutherford B. Hays did not approve of décolleté. THe assertion is borne out by her dress which is made with a high neck and elbow sleeves. It is a beautiful creation, nevertheless, of cream colored satin with side panniers, a flounced train of brocaded satin, and trimmed with silk and pearl fringe and passementarie.

Mrs. Cleveland’s “Umbrella” Skirt

One mistress of the White House was married there, Mrs. Grover Cleveland. Her own in the collection is characterized by its “umbrella” shirt of the period. The material is clear green taffeta figured with American Beauty roses, trimmed with American beauty velvet and made with a low neck and puffed sleeves.

Cream satin seems to have been a popular dress material of White House mistresses, and Mrs. William McKinley’s inaugural costume was of this fabric. It is made with a high neck, long sleeves, and a weeping train. Aloncon lace, seed pearls and brilliants form the decoration. Brocade of the famed “Alice blue” tine fashioned Mrs. Roosevelt’s gown. It is embroidered in silver and is made with a short, tight bodice, low neck and the sleeves are of tulle.

Described by many as the handsomest gown in the exhibit at Washington is the inaugural gown of Mrs. Taft, a princess model which was embroidered in the Philippine Islands. The hand work is wrought in silk, crystal beads and rhinestones, extending the length of the train and with peal and Crystal banding on the bodice. The reproduction of this gown was worn in the pageant by Mrs. Arthur Stanley Pease.

Mrs. Taft’s successor, Mrs. Woodrow Wilson also wore a princess design. Hers is of black velvet with tulle sleeves, richly decorated with jet, buttons and scintillating jet passementarie.White satin is seen again in the gown of Mrs. Harding. It is also embroidered with pears and crystal beads and adorned with a flowing girdle of black tulle and black chenille flowers at the waist. It is made with a low neckline and long train.

The unique collection of costumes was begun by the late Mrs. Julien James of Washington, who was assisted by Ms. Rose Gouverneur Hoes, great-great-grand daughter of President Monroe. In many cases the gowns were family heirlooms in the possession of descendants who have co-operated in restoring them.

Mrs. Coolidge’s gown represents the period of 1925. Within a short time there will be Mrs. Herbert Hoover’s of 1929 to go into the museum. Whose will be next?

Adapted from The Springfield Republican.

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