KCB wrote and mailed two letters from Berlin (one to brother dated October 23, 1894 and the other to Florence dated October 24, 1894). Then they were off to Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Here’s where things get tricky! The dates I mean…
You see 1894 Russia was still using the Julian Old Style calendar. This means that Russia was twelve days behind in the eighteenth century and thirteen days behind in the twentieth century. Russia didn’t switch to the Georgian New Style calendar until 1918 – way behind the rest of the world. Catholic countries (Spain, Portegrul, Italy) switched from Old to New around 1582 and the British Empire, including the American colonies, switched in September 1752. If you want all the gory details of the two calendars, see Wikipedia and TimeandDate.com.
The first item from Russia in KCB’s collection at the Library of Congress is a quick note from Clifton letting her know that they will need to attend a service at 3pm, November 2, 1894.
Legation of the United States
Nov. 2. 94
There will be religious service at St. (illegible) at 3 this P. M.. You are invited.
Ladies in “Robe Claire”, with hat or bonnet.
This is for the succession and not an occasion of mourning.
(in margin) We all expect to go.
But is that November 2, 1894 Old Style or New Style????
We know that the Breckinridges were in Berlin on October 24, 1894 New Style (which was October 12, 1894 in Saint Petersburg).
We know that Alexander III dies on November 1, 1894 New Style (which is October 20, 1894 in Saint Petersburg).
But was CRB using the Old Style date on his letter because he was physically in Russia or was he using the New Style date because he was an American Minister?
This is where the internet fails. Most websites list pre-Soviet Russian dates as New Style dates but without telling the reader. So they’ve done the math for us. But when you throw a newly arrived American into the mix, it gets mucked up. So I turn to one of my favorite sources – A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra Their Own Story by Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko. Published in 1996 this great book is a first person account of what was really going on and the editors say outright that they are using Old Style dates.
Now we know that Alexander III died at the family’s summer palace, Livadia, in the Crimea (October 20 OS or November 1 NS). We also know that his body left Livadia on October 27(OS), arrived in Moscow October 30(OS), arrived Saint Petersburg on November 1(OS) and was interred on November 7(OS). (The New Style dates would be left Livadia on November 7, 1894 and traveled by train to Saint Petersburg where he was interred on November 18, 1894.)
With the above facts in play and knowing that the diary dates from Nicholas (in A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra Their Own Story) are all Old Style dates, then I think (maybe?) I can safely assume that CRB is using Old Style dates and that the Breckinridges are expected to be in church to pray over the new Tsar, with the new Tsar in attendance, on November 2 at 3 pm. Because the new Tsar arrived in Saint Petersburg with his father’s body on November 1 at 10 o’clock in the morning.
Wow that’s like one of those word problems from 5th grade….
Going through my thesis materials has my head spinning! I have found stuff I’d forgotten about. I’ve found stuff I have no idea why I have it. I’ve found stuff that I question why I don’t have more of it. I’m talking to you, Canebrake Plantation Records!!!! I have two pages that I copied from microfilm 15 years ago but just those two pages. And not even two pages of important stuff. These two pages to be exact!!!
My best guess is that at the time I was more focused on Airlie Plantation. KCB was born at Airlie in Carroll Parish, Louisiana in 1853 and I just needed to know what other plantations her father, James Green Carson, owned. Canebrake and Oasis in particular. So when I ILLed the plantation records for Airlie and Canebrake, I wasn’t interested in the plantation records as much as I was interested in any information they might give me about KCB or her father or her family.
Doing historical research is like the worst case of ADD. I consider myself a pretty focused person. And a really focused and organized researcher. But I don’t remember the ADD being this bad in the past. I’m having a SOMETHING SHINY moment every other second! You know what I mean – one second I’m looking at plantation records and the next second I’m off on pictures of a dress or a secondary sources that I can’t remember exactly what it said. I mean it took me a good 10 minutes to find the picture of Hammy the Squirrel from Over the Hedge to illustrate my thought!
Maybe doing the research the first time was easier. I didn’t have anything so everything was a possibility. And once I outlined my subject, I had a path. A root system to work from. In a lot of cases, I was working on a firm deadline – end of the semester because it was due and had to be turned in. The majority of the DAR research was done as an independent study so I had a narrowish topic and a firm deadline!
Now the questions are coming faster than I have a time to research and answer them. And when I am researching, it’s like going down the Facebook wormhole every time! You know what I’m talking about! You get on Facebook (or the internet in general) to look for something specific and an hour later you’ve liked 12 posts, watched 6 videos and can’t remember why you were there in the first place!
Handwritten letters are beautiful and they are a lost art. But they can also be challenging. Lucky for me KCB had good penmanship. (Clifton is a different story for a later post!) But even with the best penmanship, you have to get acclimated to the author’s pen as well as their voice. I had to get used to KCB’s handwriting. How she made her Ss and Ds and the difference between the two. Same with L, F, and T. I had to become familiar with her way of speaking. The way she structured her sentences. Her lack of punctuation. Her word choice. Context helps with transcribing but context comes with assumptions and those assumptions can make the context wrong.
And transcription is a tedious task. I don’t know anyone who can sit in front of a computer for hours upon hours transcribing handwritten letters into typed format. Your eyes get sore and tired. Your back starts to hurt (even with the best desk chair). And I’m a good typist but I’m not super fast and I have to look at the keys every once in a while!
Oddly enough I didn’t do any research on letter or diary transcription projects when I was working on and writing my thesis. It’s not for lack of published material available in most local libraries. Mary Boykin Chestnut’s A Diary from Dixie is probably the most famous. Or Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (although it’s not without controversy). Nicholas and Alexandra’s letters were transcribed and published in the late 1990s and I even own a copy of that one. I do remember looking at biographies’ of other Southern women. But that was because I was writing a biography. Writing a biography is a completely different animal than just transcribing a lot of letters. I mean, yes, some of the biographies I looked at relied heavily on the subject’s personal correspondence and/or diaries but not just one transcribed letter after another for the reader to enjoy outside of historic context. I don’t know that I would know how to or even want to present the letters outside of their broader historical context. I mean it’s not like history happened in a vacuum or anything!!!
And you need the whole conversation to do a letter transcription project. KCB’s letters at the Library of Congress are one sided. Most of the letters in the collection are her letters to other people. Not the other people’s response to her letters. And again in writing my thesis I was constrained by time. The other side of the correspondence might exist in other libraries or collections. I’m always on the outlook for those. For example some correspondence between KCB and her daughter, Mary, are part of Mary’s papers at the University of Kentucky. I just haven’t made it there yet.
And now that I look back on it, I not only didn’t look at transcription project but I didn’t look at how people wrote letters in the nineteenth century or what tools they used. Odd because I love material culture. Why the crazy thin paper? Was it for economy of postage? Or economy of material in general? I know paper was expensive – Jane Austen tells us that in Mansfield Park. What type of pen would KCB have used? Are we still talking quill and ink well? Or had we entered fountain pen territory? And yes, I know Google could answer all these questions for me in a manner of seconds but that defeats the purpose!
What I do know about KCB’s writing habits is that she wasn’t going to start a new sheet of paper if she only had a little bit left to write! Take this letter example – Paris October 15 1894. The original letter (I really wish I had a picture for you of an actual letter) is written on onion skin thin paper. The paper is folded in half. KCB started her letter on the left side, filled that half page, turned it over and filled the other half page (right side).
Then she opened the folded page, turned it over and continued her letter, filling the whole page from top to bottom. When she ran out of space on the back side, she returned to the front, turned the page so that the left side was at the top (would that be clockwise?) and finished her thought. In this example, it was just the end of the sentence, her closing and her signature. I don’t know what this turning the page and writing over existing text is called, and I’m sure there is some official name or term for it… But I’m forever amazed at how I can still read the original text and the text written at a 90 degree angle. I’ve been referring to it as cross-writing.
It may have started with a dress but it’s really all about the letters! And the letters are truly incredible! And I promise I’m working up to actually posting the letters! All in good time!
Katherine Carson Breckinridge wrote thousands of letters to friends and family during her life time. And fortunately for us, she saved them and some how they got included in the Breckinridge Family Papers collection at the Library of Congress – Manuscript Reading Room. The Breckinridge Family Papers is a huge collection with 206,000 items in 875 containers plus 37 microfilm reels. All total is 265 linear feet. If you want to take a look at the outline of the collection, here’s the finding aid. KCB’s Containers are 861 through 864 totaling 23 folders.
KCB’s stuff is mainly in two sections of the collection: Other Family Papers 1779-1965 and Addition I, 1816-1980. Other items related to KCB are in Clifton’s stuff and as well as folders marked with her maternal aunt, Susanna Preston Lees’ name, and her daughter Mary Carson Breckinridge (of Frontier Nursing Service fame) and her other children. And even though KCB married into the Breckinridge family, some of her mother’s, father’s, and brothers’ papers are in the collection as well.
And it’s just not letters home from Russia but letters between KCB and Clifton during their courtship and early marriage. And early writing from her childhood. And her Daughters of the American Revolution membership application. I was looking for details about the wedding and coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra. And that’s there but there is so much more.
Between 2001 and 2011, I took 6 trips to do research on KCB’s papers. On my first trip, I was so naive about researching in a big archive. I had done research at the Arkansas History Commission and local university archives. But the Library of Congress is the real deal! I arrived armed with my dad’s laptop and a lot of determination. I was going to start by looking at the Russia letters and getting an inventory. My plan was to transcribe as many letters as I could during that trip. But spending 8 hours in a quiet reading room reading (and deciphering) old letters written on thin paper is exhausting – physically and mentally. But it’s exhilarating as well. That first trip was a full week. And I got a lot done but also realized how much more there was to do.
My next trip was a game changer! Hello copy machine!!!! During this research trip I noticed that a lot of researchers were taking files, one at a time, over to the copy machines which lined one wall of the room. It took me about an hour to get up the courage to go up to the desk with my folder (why do you always feel like a kid when you have to ask for permission to do something like that!) But what could it hurt, right? All they can say is no! So I walked up to the desk with a folder and asked. And they said YES!!!! I just needed to ask about each folder and keep everything in its original order. YES!!!!!
Problem! It’s $.15 per page to make a copies on their fancy digital copy machines!!! Only $.10 per page for the regular machine! But it had to be digital or nothing! And I had hundreds of letters, double sided!!! Well you only live once right?!?!?! So I did something I’ve never done before. I marched across the street and made a CASH withdrawal from my credit card at the ATM! With cash in hand I returned to LOC, purchased a copy card and loaded it! Let the photocopying begin!
When it comes to research, I definitely use the scoop and run approach! Because my time is often limited in the archive, I want to get as much done and I can “process” what I found later. The key to this method (and I’m not always successful) is to make sure you process soon – like that night or that week. Because if you let time lapse you often think “why did I think this was important???”
So photocopying was great for me! I could get a lot done and “process” it later! It is important to keep the letters together during the photocopying process. As I mentioned earlier, KCB’s letters are multi-pages, doubled sided. In some cases one letter could be 10 photocopied pages. And of course she didn’t number her pages. I had to be EXTREMELY careful to keep one letter together and the pages in order! And for citation purposes, I need to know what container and folder each letter came from!
When I returned home from each trip, it was time to get everything organized for safe keeping. Enter binders and sheet protectors! Because the photocopies were precious to me (maybe as precious as the originals), I didn’t want to hole punch them. Plus I didn’t want to risk losing anything important. So each letter got it’s own sheet protector. I know I could have done front to back and make them like a book but I didn’t want to risk getting anything out of order. Keeping everything in order was paramount. I think I even had nightmares that two letters would get mixed up and pages would inter-mingle with each other. Can you imagine?
At some point between 2001 and now, I came across a “scrapbook” by a woman from one of those northern Midwest state (like Wisconsin or Minnesota) who attended the coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra. I remember trying to request this scrapbook through ILL but no luck. It was archival. And I couldn’t figure out how to get to Minnesota or Wisconsin or wherever it was housed to take a look at it.
Then at some point closer to now (in the last 10 years), I found a copy of said “scrapbook” on Abebooks or Alibris for like $400. I never have an extra $400 lying around to purchase something I’ve never seen. Even something that might rock my world!
This “scrapbook”, supposedly documenting another American’s experience at the Coronation of N & A, was my Love In The Time of Cholera. Let me explain. There’s this great John Cusack movie, Serendipity. He meets this girl in Bloomingdale’s at Christmas time, they both want to buy the same pair of gloves (the last pair in all of NYC), and end up going to coffee or something. He asks for her phone and she makes this whole speech about fate and puts her full name and phone number in the front cover of a copy of Love In The Time of Cholera. So he spends the next 10 years or so looking inside every copy of Love In The Time of Cholera that he finds in every used bookstore in New York.
So this “scrapbook” had become my Love In The Time of Cholera. Every so often I’d google it and see what was out there. I even looked in antique stores. You never know!
Since rebooting this whole thesis thing, it’s been in the back of my head. But my head has been pretty full with plantation records, other family connections, and KCB letters. Well today it popped back into my head. And after about 20 minutes of searching I found the name of the author, googled her and found Russian Coronation 1896. I was self published in the 1940s by Katie Koon Bovey and a copy sold at an online auction in October 2010 for $47. Can you see the steam coming out of my ears?!?!?!?!?
Now that I had an actual title and author, I went to Worldcat thinking maybe a library might, just might, ILL it to me!!!! And guess what!??!?!?! It’s been scanned by Google books!!!! And in the introduction I found this.
Mr. Breckinridge did what!?!?!?!?!?! A list of 15 American “Strangers of Distinction” got an invite to the Coronation!!!! How did Mr. Breckinridge pick these “Strangers of Distinction”? How did he know these people were in Europe? Did he know Mrs. John A. Logan? Was her husband, the Civil War general, Union or Confederate? I mean if he was Confederate then it might make sense. Breckinridge being the son of Confederate General John C. Breckinridge that’s probable!
Oh this is so exciting!!!! I’ve gotta go read now!!!!
In writing my thesis, I knew where I wanted to go but the question was how to get there. And more importantly, get there with the blessing of your advisor and committee.
My WHERE was write my Master’s Thesis on the Breckinridge gown. My HOW was more challenging. I really just wanted to do a material culture study of the Breckinridge gown. But was there enough there?
At the beginning of the thesis process you have an idea or a question that you form into a topic. But you have to do some research to get to forming your actual thesis statement. (For the more science minded, think of the scientific hypothesis. Pose the question. Do the experiments. Write up the results. It’s pretty much the same in humanities.) But as you do the research, your thesis statement will probably evolve as you hit roadblocks or dead ends. Your original question may not be your final thesis statement.
Ideally you do research and write papers through your graduate school courses that can be used in some form or fashion in this great project that if approved and defended gets you a piece of paper saying you’re a master at something. My path was not so straightforward. I was 1013 miles from the bulk of the primary sources. I was encouraged to do something more local. But I was smitten.
After finding the gown and discovering the collection of letters, I did a major paper for my Historical Methods class on the North Carolina textile industry and how the Union blockade effected it during the American Civil War. I have no idea what I was thinking or how I thought this would help me with the Breckinridge gown. Looking back – I was really grasping at straws with that one!
I got a little smarter with future papers. For a women’s history seminar class in spring 2001, I launched into the heart of the matter. Initial genealogy on KCB, outlined how and why they were in Russia for the coronation, material culture on the gown, and my first look at the letters. A spring break trip to DC – to visit a close friend and get a look a the letters. It was wonderful and I was more tenacious than ever when I returned. About here is when the Chasing the Dress phase is coined by my thesis advisor.
I might have come back from DC more tenacious but I think that tenacity masked my fear. I mean the word THESIS was always really scary for me. It was big and powerful and life changing. It made me feel a little sick to my stomach. I’d seen the letters and I just knew in my gut that there was something there. I needed to convince others!
How was I going to turn these letters and this dress into a THESIS? I talked to anyone and everyone who would listen (or would act like they were listening). People in the know keep asking me WHAT’S THE POINT??? Why was this woman significant? I was telling them facts and trivia and they just keep telling me BUT WHAT’S THE POINT???
And of course I took SIGNIFICANT to mean that I needed to be looking for something HUGE! Like Holy Grail or Ark of the Covent HUGE! And I just had a dress and a woman and a bunch of letters. A lot of letters. How would I get through them all and then tie it all up in a nice historiography package with a beautiful bow on top? Now historiography – that a SCARY word!
And finally someone (I think it was Stephan Recken) told me “it’s just a giant research project – your research project.” He was always the voice of reason though I usually didn’t realized it at the time! Once I started thinking of it as a research project, and not a THESIS, I could tackle it step by step. I could research and I was pretty damn good at it! So let’s research!
The lightbulb started to click but there was still a short in the wire. I started with the dress. And the dress lead to the woman who wore the dress. Which lead to her letters. Which lead to her marriage to a man who become a politician. Which lead to patriotic hereditary societies. Which lead to diplomatic appointment. Which lead to haute couture. Which lead to imperial Russia. Which lead to looking at daughters of southern planters who were born in the decade before the Civil War and came of age after. I was all over the place. There was so much but these are just facts and trivia. WHAT’S THE POINT still hung in the air like a guillotine’s blade!
I wanted to do a material culture study but since I didn’t have much on the dress maker (and maybe at this point I still thought it was a Worth gown), I thought the woman was the best angle of approach. After all she wore the dress and wrote the letters. And there were lots of readily available secondary sources to HISTORIOGRAPHY all over that! But I needed a road map. I needed it in a full color and bubbles. And then it clicked (or at least it clicked for my thesis advisor)! She could see my vision and where I was wanting to go. I was writing a biography.
For years – generations really – history was about white men and wars and politics and all that stuff. You know the type. Presidents. Titans of industry. Great generals. The phase “to the victor go the spoils” isn’t just about stuff. It’s the history as well. Then the 1960s and 1970s historians started looking at other folks. Other groups. You know the rest of us. The ordinary people. (It’s called New Social History if you’re interested!) It was a whole rethinking of history scholarship. Historians started looking at groups of people whose names weren’t in the headlines. The majority of history professor in western colleges and universities were trained in this school of thought.
“[Social history] prides itself on being concerned with ‘real life’ rather than abstractions, with ‘ordinary’ people rather than privileged elites, with everyday things rather than sensational events.” – Raphael Samuel, History TodayVolume 35 Issue 3 March 1985
And I wanted to research and write about a privileged elite Southern woman who attended the sensational events of the wedding and coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra while wearing a haute couture gown. So not New Social History.
Because I didn’t get this whole New Social History thing at the time, I remember thinking but she lived and she wrote letters. She left a record. She had a real life with real struggles despite her status. In her letters she outlined an ordinary life with frustrations about money and parenting. And she detailed the everyday things she had to deal with as the wife of a member of Congress/Minister to Russia. She was more than just Mrs. Clifton Rodes Breckinridge. She had thoughts and opinions of her own and she wrote them down and someone had the forethought to save them and make them accessible to the public. I thought (or interpreted what I was being told) that KCB had to have done something in order for her to be important enough to write a whole thesis. Something on her own outside of her husband’s realm. She couldn’t just be Mrs. Clifton Rodes Breckinridge. She needed to have done something in her own right. It wasn’t that she had lived and wrote letters.
So in July 2002 I turned in a working Thesis Statement. The final paragraph says it all.
Historians have argued that the wives of great white men are not historically significant in their own right simply because of their choice of husband. In some cases this argument is true. Martha Washington is considered a great woman not because of what she did but because she was married to George Washington, father of the country. I contend many of these so-called wives are significant in their own right because of what they said, wrote or did. They should not be completely discounted at first glance because of their martial status. Katherine Breckinridge, although the wife of a powerful politician, was an astute observer of the Washington social atmosphere and the Imperial Russian court life. She did not found the American Red Cross or became a leading activist in the women’s rights movement. She was an ordinary woman in a privileged social arena who wrote letters to friends and families about her experiences. She is significant in her own right.
I can read my frustration at the time in this paragraph. My frustration with the scholarship. I can read my determination to get my way and make this my topic. And I still believe this. Historians in general have discounted elite women who lived the lives they were prescribed to live. There are many elite women who by sheer force of will and personality pushed beyond their social class and/or marriage status to become great. I’m specifically thinking about Jane Addams of Hull House fame. She was born to an elite northern family and pushed past her prescribed sphere of marriage and family and won the Noble Prize.
Not everyone can be a Jane Addams. Not everyone can win a Noble Prize. Somehow by being born into money and embracing the life of hearth and home, these women aren’t worth looking at. Studying. Exploring. There is still something to learned from her and from her experiences. But at the time I wasn’t ready or willing to take on the establishment. I couldn’t push too hard. I needed a little time. I needed some distant. I needed a mid-life crisis.
But the thesis writing process is not just about the author. Or the subject. It is really collaborative effort between student and teacher. And a good teacher will not let you hang yourself. After many meetings and discussions. After many frustrations on my part because I wasn’t listening or hearing, we hammered out a final thesis statement.
Through the correspondence and life of Katherine Carson Breckinridge, this thesis will argue that Breckinridge represents a type of elite southern white women, born in the decade prior to the Civil War and raised in the turbulent war and Reconstruction years, delicately balanced the two images, Southern Lady and New Woman, and created the abstract of the New Southern Lady. The new female ideal allowed elite southern women to broaden their private personas to include specific acceptable tenets from the public sphere. As the New Southern Lady, women felt increasingly more comfortable trying new activities such as club membership and activism. Privately, women expressed their newfound voices in correspondence with their husbands, daughters, and other female relatives.
And all I really wanted to do was write about a dress!
So Paul Poiret mentions Maison Redfern in a list of great Parisian couture houses of the 1890s. Well that’s something. From that one reference, I was off to the races. I mean Redfern is usually the only name mentioned along side Charles Frederick Worth (considered the father of haute couture as we know it) so he must be more significant than just an English dressmaker. Here is what I discovered along the way.
John Redfern was an English tailor who first established a name for himself on the Isle of Wight. His claim to fame was designing women’s sports wear in the 1870s. And by 1881 he had shops (or salons) in London and Paris. His son Ernest supervised the London location while Charles Poytner supervised the Paris branch. In 1888 Redfern was named the official dressmaker for Queen Victoria.
No surprise Redfern had such luck with clients. When you are appointed dressmaker for Queen Victoria, you might get a few of her relatives to buy your gowns as well! In addition to the Queen, Maison Redfern counted among its clientele the Princess of Wales (later Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII), Queen of Denmark (Louise of Hesse-Kassell), Queen of Portugal (Maria Pia of Savoy), Tsarina Maria of Russia, and Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt (later Tsarina Alexsandra of Russia).
The above two paragraphs were cobbled together over months (if not years of research). And for this blog post, I conceded the actual text from my thesis (more later). And I used eight sources to make sure the facts were correct. Eight sources to confirm information is overkill even for a historian (three is the rule). But so little information was out there about Redfern, I wanted to make sure that I was getting it right. One of the reasons for the reboot of all this research is that so much has evolved in the last 15 years. The majority of my initial research into Redfern was done between 2001 and 2005. And because my thesis was on Katherine Carson Breckinridge primarily and not Maison Redfern, I had to limit my Redfern research path.
Not only were my printed sources limited but my internet options were laughable in 2003. As I’ve mentioned previously, an internet search for Redfern, John Redfern or Maison Redfern didn’t give me much information. In my original bibliography for my “Chasing the Dress” paper (spring 2001), I cite three websites: a faculty page from the University of Washington (no longer active), the Costume Gallery’s Research Library, and the Museum of Costume in Bath, England (now Fashion Museum Bath). I have no idea what I found there because they are listed in the bibliography that I turned into my professor to show her what I was looking at and were never cited in the actual paper. And I visited both sites for this post. Costume Gallery doesn’t have a search feature and Fashion Museum Bath has no records when you search for the word Redfern. The final “Chasing the Dress” paper cites The Redfern Gallery‘s website. I remember this website vividly. It is an art gallery located in the building originally inhabited by Maison Redfern in London. Back in 2001 they had a lovely section about Redfern on their website but no longer.
Now if you google Redfern or John Redfern, you get a Wikipedia page plus dozens of personal blogs or museum collection sites with photos and tidbits about this creations. But there are still missing pieces. For a fashion designer whose name is often uttered in the same breath as Charles Frederick Worth, very little is know about Redfern.
For Redfern research phase 2, I thought I’d revisit my original secondary sources. Maybe I missed something back then that makes more sense now or didn’t seem relevant at the time. But most of that stuff is in a storage unit and I need to wait until the craziness of the holiday is over before bring tubs of beautifully organized binders into my small house!
So in the meantime, let’s tackle what’s been published since 2005 about late 19th/early 20th century fashion or haute couture.
One of the coolest finds of my public library research was a DVD entitled The Story of Fashion with Karl Lagerfeld. It appeared when I did a WorldCat subject search for Redfern, John. And the library I work at just happened to own a copy. It couldn’t hurt, right?
This documentary is from the early to mid-1980s but wasn’t put to DVD until 2010. Well in the first 20 minutes of Disc 1 (3 Discs in total), Mr. Lagerfeld not only answers some long unanswered questions about early couture stitching  but he states that Maison Redfern exhibited at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. He explains that the Exposition Universelle had a pavilion devoted to “the new fashion of Paris couturiers.” Lagerfeld specifically mentions Redfern and the documentary goes on to say that Redfern was an Englishman known for hunting and walking clothes whose tailored, simple designs were significant for the time. 
Didier Grumbach’s History of International Fashion, published 2014, has two reference to Redfern and three references to Charles Poynter Redfern (although pages are same in two instances). On page 22 with the section heading Charles Poynter Redfern, Grumbach states that “despite the rivalry between France and Great Britain, couturiers settled on either side of the Channel. It was even considered in good taste and recommended to open a subsidiary in London if one was Parisian. or vice-versa.” He goes on to say about Redfern
“an English tailor established in London and Paris, whose talent ranged from Anglo-Saxon distinction to ‘Parisian chic’ was the first to offer the ‘skirt suit’ in 1885, then the ‘tailored coat’ inspired by the severe cut of gentleman’s clothing. While he excelled at sober, British-style garments for which he became famous, he was also one of the most sought-after theatrical costume designers.”
In his conclusion Grumbach again references Redfern but only by name and as a reference to grand history of fashion. In his commentary on the future of haute couture, Grumbach states that “the fashion pendulum is constantly swinging from London to Milan, finding its balance in Paris.” He lists Redfern as one in a long line of “couturier-createurs” who “joyfully exult the transformations of fashion.” Along side Worth, Grumbach places Redfern with modern couturiers such as Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano.
Lucy Johnston’s 19th Century Fashion in Detail is the first secondary source with real information on Maison Redfern by featuring an example of one of their bodices. Aside from being an amazing book that anyone interested in nineteenth century fashion and/or costume should own, it is a great reference to all the little details of these intricate creations. Johnston’s mention of Redfern refers to his innovation in what we would now call sportswear. (Although nineteenth century sportswear was much more refined and formal than the running suit or yoga pants of today.) Most of the secondary sources that refer to Redfern in any detail refer to his groundbreaking transformation of women’s riding habits, cycling garments or walking suits. Johnston states that “Messrs Redfern & Co. made sporting dress that was practical as well as chic.
“Designers including Charles Frederick Worth and Emile Pingat produced some of the most expensive and beautifully made creations in day and evening wear. Low necklines, confections of lace, feathers, flounces, dainty trimmings, swirls of silk chiffon and jeweled embroidery encapsulated femininity. Coats and mantles worn over the top we’re made of equally luxurious materials and decoration, often complementing the colour and textures of the gown. To own a made-to-measure garment from one of the top Paris fashion houses was a sign of wealth and success, and couture houses often stamped their name on the waist tape on the inside of the bodice. Sometimes dressmakers and retailers made copies of Paris designs for their fashionable clientele. Upper-end fashion houses and court dressmaker like Liberty and Redfern marked their garments…”
Johnston details this riding jacket that Redfern made for May Primrose Littledale. In the analysis Johnston outlines the use of braiding in the mid-1880s “inspired by ornamentation on regimental dress as well as the flamboyant hussar designs.” She also cites The Queen magazine’s May 10, 1884 edition praised the Hungarian and the Polish braid styles as striking and handsome.
In Daniel Milford-Cottam’s 2014 Edwardian Fashion, he refers Redfern twice. First as a mention alongside Paquin on page 10, he states “along with the British house of Redfern, Paquin was one of a number of couturiers to have salons in London and Paris by the beginning of the 1900s. This meant that clients did not need to travel internationally in order to purchase Paris gowns.” Then on page 19 he spends a whole paragraph talking about Redfern and late nineteenth century activewear. He states that “Redfern outfits were so stylish that their royal and aristocratic clients wore them as smart daywear.”
Christopher Breward’s Fashion, published in 2003 as part of the Oxford History of Art series, make a single name reference to Redfern in the chapter entitled “Fashion Capitals.” He says “from the turn of the [twentieth century] to the start of the Second World War, while West End dressmaking establishments such as Lucile and Redfern provided adapted versions of Parisian couture for English court presentations and the social round of the Season, ladies’ tailoring firms were producing neat outfits for the shopping spree or the grouse moor.” His endnote is possible the most helpful. He cites Amy de al Haye’s The Cutting Edge: 50 Years of British Fashion and Christopher Sladen’s The Conscription of Fashion “for useful interpretations of English style in this important period.”
In the process of finding all this stuff with one or two references to Redfern, I come across some older books. Ok so this books were published pre-2005 but either they never come up in searches or I couldn’t get a copy at the time.
A Hundred Years of Royal Style by Colin McDowell was published in 1985 and right there under R in the index are 2 references to Redfern. On page 17 is the sketch of Queen Mary in “a sensible walking costume by Redfern.”
Then on page 72 McDowell states “Princess May [later Queen Mary] already had a trousseau, but it had been prepared in December 1881, and quite apart from its unfortunate associations, it was no longer in the height of fashion. It was replaced by a new trousseau that was elaborate, costly and all-English, having been provide by Linton and Curtis, Scott Adie, and Redfern.”
In Mary Brooks Picken and Dora Loues Miller’s Dressmakers of France: The Who, How, and Why of the French Couture (published in 1956), Redfern is mentioned in reference to other designers. First in the section about Paul Poiret (the guy who made the list that gave me my first tip of Redfern’s importance), the authors state that Poiret started his career as sketch maker “as so many designers in our era began, to houses like Doucet, Worth, Rouff, Paquin, and Redfern.” And again Redfern is mentioned in the section on Robert Piguet, who started his career working for Redfern. Pickens and Miller note that “[Piguet]’s first employment was as a modelliste with Redfern, and he later went to Poiret.”
And then on page 77 there it is! A whole section on Redfern. It’s really TWO paragraphs but beggars can’t be choosers, right? The paragraphs are in a section entitled “Names Worthy of Remembering” and Doucet, Lucile, and Mainbocher are included as well. The two paragraphs are as follows
“This house was established n 1881 at 242, rue de Rivoli. Later Redfern established himself in London and New York. He was more popular with the English than with the Americans. He had a real flair for the theater and is reported to have lost money designing for this medium which appealed to him so much. Many look back with nostalgia to his Greek-type costumes designed for Mary Garden. He also designed for Sarah Bernhardt, and it is said that he had a part in redesigning the mousquetaire sleeve which was often called, in its modified form, the Bernhardt sleeve.
He was a rather “rough and ready” type, preferring outdoor activities to indoor, but he had taste and knew how a pretty woman should dress to make herself even prettier.”
In Kings of Fashion written by Any Latour and published in 1958, Redfern appears in the table of contents (what!!!) and gets a whole page and a half dedicated to him!!!! Unfortunately the book isn’t indexed (!!!!) so I’ll have to read the whole thing or at least skim most of it to see if Redfern is mentioned any more. But for the purpose of this post, I’ll just take the page and a half thank you very much!
In the chapter entitled “Haute Couture on the Stage,” the section on Redfern details the start of the firm and the opening of the Paris salon in 1881. The author states that John Redfern started in the house in 1824 and “for years had been dressmaker to the aristocracy and included Queen Victoria among his regular patrons.” She also differentiates between John Redfern and Charles Poynter
Latour provides tidbits that I’ve never seen before. She claims that Redfern employed a staff of five hundred in their Paris salon by 1892. She also contends that “it was soon considered chic to be dressed à l’ Anglaise by Redfern” and that he affected “strong English accent” and behaved as English “in manner as possible.” She quotes an unnamed comtemporary of Redfern’s who described him “as cool as an Englishman and capable of a Frenchman’s enthusiasm.”
Finally my husband (two historians in one family can be very useful) found a thesis/ dissertation about Redfern listed in WorldCat. It seems to have been written by Susan Frances North for her Master’s Degree at the University of London Courtauld Institute of Art. Unfortunately no libraries are listed as having a copy. Odd?!?! Tried ILL from CALS and they confirmed that it “does exist in any library.” Bummer! Well maybe by putting this out there, the author or someone familiar with the author will contact me. I’ve always been a big believer in if you put it out the universe…
I’m waiting on a few more secondary sources to come from other libraries. And then on to any primary sources I can track down!
Jane Ashelford, The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society, 1500-1914 (New York: Abrams, 1996), 266; Charlotte Mankey Calasibetta, Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion (New York: Fairchild Books, 1998), 654; Georgina O’Hara Callan, The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Fashion and Fashion Designers (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998), 199; Stephanie Davies, Costume Language: A Dictionary of Dress Terms (Malvern, England: Cressrelles Publishing Company Limited, 1994), 127; Georgina O’Hara, The Encyclopaedia of Fashion (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986), 211; R. Turner Wilcox, The Dictionary of Costume (New York: Scribner’s, 1969), 96.
Lagerfeld states that early Worth gowns were poorly made. He explains that they were made in one day or afternoon because they were costume party dresses commissioned on very short notice. He compares them to stage clothes or costumes in their construction. He goes on to explain that it wasn’t until the 1880s/1890s when Worth’s son took over the shop that everything was made to perfection. Lagerfeld described these later creations by saying the “inside [was] more astonishing than [the] outside.”
Hershon, Eila, Roberto Guerra, Meredith Etherington-Smith, Karl Lagerfeld, and Diana Quick. 2010. The story of fashion. Halle, Germany: Arthaus Musik.
Grumbach, Didier. History of International Fashion. Northhampton, Massachusetts: Interlink Books, 2014 cites Boucher, François. Histoire du costume en Occident: de l’antiquité à nos jours. [Paris]: Flammarion, 1969.
Johnston, Lucy, Marion Kite, and Helen Persson. 19th Century Fashion in Detail. Rev. Ed. Farnborough: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2016.
Breward, Christopher. Fashion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
In 1891 Princess May was engaged to Prince Albert Victor, the oldest son of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VI), but he died six weeks after the engagement was announced in the 1889-90 influenza pandemic. Queen Victoria was very fond of May and encouraged her engagement to Albert Victor’s brother, Prince George. They were married in July 1893.
McDowell, Colin. A Hundred Years of Royal Style. London: Muller, Blond & White, 1985.
Picken, Mary Brooks, Dora Loues Miller, Claire Valentine, and Patricia Rowe Waters. Dressmakers of France: The Who, How and Why of French Couture. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956. According to Historical Dictionary of the Fashion Industry by Francesca Sterlacci and Joanne Arbuckle, a modelliste is employed by a couturier to “assist with the creation of the design, fabric, and trims.” Sterlacci, Francesca, and Joanne Arbuckle. Historical Dictionary of the Fashion Industry. 2017. <http://site.ebrary.com/id/11406968>, 222.
The fashion house is usually referred to as simply Redfern and many assume that the head designer is Redfern. But in fact scholars disagree on the name of the man in charge of the actual design. Most agree that a man named John Redfern originally established the house on the Isle of Wight in England but some scholars believe that Charles Poynter was John Redfern’s son and other believe the two men were not related. More on this later.
Now I had to make some thing out of it and convince a panel of scholars this topic – this idea – could be more than an idea…more than a pretty dress!
Here’s what I knew or believed to be true:
KCB was the wife of Clifton Rodes Breckinridge.
President Grover Cleveland appointed Clifton Rodes as minister to Russia in 1893/1894.
The dress was worn by KCB to the coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra of Russia in 1896.
The dress was a Worth design.
That’s not a lot! And this isn’t just a simple research paper, people! We’re talking Master’s Thesis. Scholarly work. Big picture. Change the course of scholarship for your generation.
Ok the change of the course of scholarship wasn’t very realistic. But that’s how it felt at the time. You find this thing you are in love with and you need to figure out how to structure your seminal career defining work (thus far) around it. You never know what you’re going to uncover! I bet Catherine Clinton, Drew Gilpin Faust or Anne Firor Scoot didn’t think they were going to change history when they started either!
Ok back to the dress! Because I worked at the Old State House Museum (OSH), I had a chance to talk to the textile conservator. This is fall 1999 or winter 2000. The dress had come back from the conservator (Polly Willman in Arlington, VA). She shared with me her notes and observations of the interior and exterior of the gown. She talked about the petersham and the construction of the dress.
Here’s what I learned…
The dress ISN’T a Worth dress.
The petersham signs the dress as Redfern.
Willman believed the dress had been made for a much larger busted woman and altered because the lining was “poorly aligned with the outer bodice” and the neckline “seemed to have been rather crudely refitted/made smaller.”
Let me explain.
Charles Fredirick Worth was the premier designer in the 19th century. Haute couture exists because of Worth. So if the Breckinridge gown was in fact a Worth, it would be a HUGE detail. That’s like having a Faberge egg or the Hope Diamond in your collection.
A petersham is the dressmakers or designers way of signing their creations. It is a woven silk ribbon attached to the boning of the bodice.
I think I have an explanation for the larger size, the poor alignment of the outer bodice and the crudely refit neckline. More on that in a few weeks.
Still not much! I would need to read letters. Ok to reading letters would require a trip to Washington, DC and the Library of Congress. And it wasn’t in the budget at the time so I’d figure out this Redfern guy. Easy right?
It was like Redfern didn’t exist or wasn’t significant enough to be mentioned by fashion historians. You see it wasn’t like now – Google and all! Search for Redfern in Netscape (remember that?) in 2000 and you got nothing. Nada! Zilch! Apparently I’m researching a fashion designer know one ever heard of! I learned that there was a aviator and baseball player named Redfern! And a lot of information about the saddest movie ever – Where the Redfern Grows!
Gonna have to go to the library! Start with secondary sources. I’ll let you in on a little secret! Historians love a good index! Cuts down on the reading! So I looked through every index of every fashion history in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock library and the Central Arkansas Library System. Looking for the name Redfern.
And then it happened! In Jane Ashelford’s The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society 1500-1914 I found my first Redfern in an index of a fashion book! Ashelford refers to Paul Poiret, an associate of Worth and a designer in his own right, and his list of “great Parisian couture houses of the 1890s.” Maison Redfern made the cut – they were on the list! This is my first bite that Redfern is more significant than just some dressmaker. But Poiret’s list was just a mention of the house and nothing else. It was a like a grocery list of fashion designers. I needed more!
Another historian fake! Look at another historian footnotes or endnotes for other sources and go to those. See what else they have to say! The history you are reading might have a little information about a subject you are interested in but their sources might have more. Jane Ashelford’s The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society 1500-1914 cited Georgina O’Hara Callan’s The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Fashion and Fashion Designers (first published 1986) and Charlotte Mankey Calasibetta’s Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion (first published 1975). Both had entries on John Redfern. Dates of activity. That he was English. Isle of Wight. Tailor. Sports clothes. Appointed dressmaker of Queen Victoria. Finally something more than a bite!
This is how I got started but there was so much more to learn about Redfern. And there is more information on the internet now then there was then! (DUH!) But not much. I mean if you google Redfern or Redfern and Sons or John Redfern or Redfern tailor, you get a lot of great pictures of great gowns and sportswear but the information about the man/the designer is just about the same. 1853-1929. English. Isle of Wight. Tailor. Sports clothes. Appointed dressmaker of Queen Victoria.
Maybe some new primary research is in order. Victoria & Albert perhaps??? Kyoto???
It all started with a dress. As I enter graduate school in 2001, the search for a thesis topic was on! The thesis process intimidated me. I think it intimidates most people. I had never written anything that long and although I knew I was a good writer and a good researcher, the end result was going to be a manuscript bigger than any thing I ever imagined producing. I knew myself well enough to know that I had to pick a topic that was EXTREMELY passionate about or I might not finish!
This was my problem – I was passionate about late Imperial Russian history. Nicholas and Alexandra, court society, and pretty clothing.
Late imperial russian history had been a fascination of mine since elementary school. Social studies had always been my favorite subject. But it all came together in Mrs. Colford’s class at Booker Arts Magnet. That year (1987?) I remember getting a pen pal from Germany, doing a report on Australia (country chosen because The Facts Of Life had a made for tv movie set in Australia) and reading a little spotlight blurb in our textbook about the murder of the last czar.
It’s the blurb that’s important for this story. You remember how elementary textbooks are laid out?!?!?! Small bits of important information with lots of pictures. Well this picture of this family caught my eye. The blurb told of their murder and the mystery of one daughter who might just have survived.
I don’t remember going to the library to look up information on the Romanovs or Anastasia. And of course this was long before the internet. but this little grain of information from my 6th grade textbook stuck. At some point in junior high I came across Peter Kurth’s book Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson. It was at the Brentino’s in Park Plaza Mall and I would go by every time I was at the mall and read a little. At some point I saved up enough money to buy it. It think it was about $30 and that seemed like a fortune!
Over the next 2 decades I became a collector of all things Romanov. I bought books on them – real history, historical fiction, anything. I watched all the movies (live action or animated), documentary, old or new. One year for Christmas my mom bought be an beautiful two volume catalog of the Hermitage Museum treasures. I went to Memphis for the exhibit on Catherine the Great. I was a little obsessed.
Back to 2001 and graduate school… We were encourage by our professors to look at Arkansas History for topic ideas. And the reasons were logical – we were in Arkansas and the primary resource materials would be easily accessible plus strong, scholarly history needed to be written about our little state. Well logical and easy have not been my mo! When I want something, I find a way to get it!
Arkansas was about a far as you can get from the Imperial Court of the Autocrats of All the Russias! Or so I thought. In 1999, I began working at the Old State House Museum. I was a tour guide just about to start the Public History Program at UALR. Over the first few months of working at OSH, my boss started asking me about thesis topics and what I might be interested in researching. Like me she was a lover of fashion and costume. I mentioned my fasciation with the Romanovs and she said “do you know about the Breckinridge gown?”
In the Old State House Museum collection was the court gown of Katherine Carson Breckinridge. Her husband, Clifton Rodes Breckinridge had been a United States Congressman and close ally of President Grover Cleveland. CRB was appointed Minister to Russia in 1894 by Cleveland. The Breckinridges traveled to Saint Petersburg in late 1894 and arrived 3 days before Tsar Alexander III died. In this twist of fate, Katherine Breckinridge witnessed the funeral of a Tsar, the wedding of the new Tsar to Princess Alix of Hesse-Darnstadt, the coronation of the Tsar and Tsarina and the birth of one of the Grand Duchess. In fact Arkansas and Russia were not so far apart after all.
A quick internet search (no Google yet but I think Yahoo!) I discovered KCB’s letters. Yes, I know that everyone wrote letters in the 1890s but she wrote hundreds of letters from Russia to her friends and family in the United States. She wrote about life in Russia, about the Imperial Court and the wedding and coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra. All her papers are in the Breckinridge Family Papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. And it wasn’t just one side correspondence. In many cases her papers had both sides. Can you say gold mine?
I had the dress – I was on a mission. This WOULD be my thesis topic. I just had to figure out what direction I would take. A very wise man once told me that a thesis is simply a really big research project. But research projects have many branches. So what seemed like a dead end or bumpy road or circle drive in 2005, might be a clearer path in 2017. So now that the signature pages are signed and the manuscript is bound and collecting dust on my living room bookshelf, it’s time to take a look at it all again. Reexamine the original answers, ask new questions, look at original sources again and find new ones. As with knitting its about the process not the project!