A Trip To The Tate Gallery & John Singer Sargeant

John Singer Sargent was noted for his portraiture and we’ve always found it to be a source of inspiration for our designs. Recently, we had the opportunity to visit the Tate Britain (aka Tate Gallery) in London where we  viewed the Portrait of Mrs. Robert Harrison:

Unfortunately this picture was hung up so high that I was unable to get a good view of the Portrait of Mrs. Robert Harrison, by John Singer Sargent.

Because of the height that the picture was displayed, we almost missed it…Here’s a better view of the work, courtesy of the Tate:

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Mrs. Robert Harrison, 1886 (Tate Gallery)

When we entered the gallery where this picture is displayed, we found that it was very difficult to view because it was hung high up on the wall. The only way to get a full view without neck strain would have been to stand on the other side of the gallery, something that’s impossible with the constant crowds. Not the most optimal viewing experience, to be sure.

Turning to the portrait itself, the one thing that caught our eye was red portions of the dress, or rather, what appears to be a red surcoat or coat worn over a fairly conventional white day dress. It’s definitely a style we haven’t encountered before, especially for the 1880s. For a little insight, below are some comments from the Tate Britain website:

The Portrait of Mrs Robert Harrison was begun in 1886, shortly after Sargent had returned from a summer in France. Ormond has suggested that this painting is a bridge between the two dominant styles of late nineteenth-century French painting, Realism and Impressionism. The details of the head and hands are precise, yet the colouring of the portrait shows a move away from the old masterly emphasis of Sargent’s style, inspired by his friendship with Monet and the work of the Impressionist artists he had seen in France.

As for the dress, the Tate notes the following:

Following the exhibition of this portrait at the Royal Academy in 1886, The Athenaeum reported that ‘An exercise in white, red and grey; is, so far as this goes, excellent, although it is decidedly unpleasant as a household companion, and, for the owner’s sake, we hope unjust to the lady’. Her unusual dress was also commented upon. The columnist for the Evesham Journal and Four Shires Advertiser exclaimed that she had never seen Mrs Harrison ‘wearing such red wing-like appendages to her costume, which look as though about to expand and convey her to the regions of Mephistopheles’

Not  particularly positive. Of course, Sargent could have simply added them in, artistic license and all, but then again, perhaps it was some simple affectation by Mrs. Robinson herself.  Either way, the pops of red definitely catch the eye and makes this portrait more interesting striking, elevating it out of the conventional. Sometimes one finds the most interesting details in painting when it’s least expected. 🙂

Mantles- 1880s Style

When building a period wardrobe, outerwear such as mantles are often overlooked even though they were a key element in just about any lady’s wardrobe. Broadly speaking, mantles are a lineal descendant of cloaks and shawls and as such, are basically a more refined version of these loose garments, designed to follow the lines of the underlying dress. One of the most distinctive characteristics of 1880s mantles was that the front was cut significantly longer than in the read in order to accommodate the bustle/train of the dress. To begin, here’s an example from circa 1875 made from a Kashmir/Paisley shawl:

Mantle, c. 1875; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.85)

Kashmir/Paisley shawls were extremely popular as outerwear during the 1850s and 1860s but were not always the easiest to wear due to their large size and especially with a trained dress. Many of these older shawls were converted to more manageable mantles during the 1870s. The above example is relatively loose which goes together with some of the exaggerated bustles/trains characteristic of early 1870s styles. Here’s an example from circa 1884 that continues this trend:

Mantle, c. 1884; Victoria and Albert Museum (T.43-1957)

But the choice of fabric was not limited to Kashmir/Paisley; other fabrics were utilized with velvet being a major favorite:

Mantle, c. 1880s; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.50.36)

The above example is a more loosely fitted example with wide sleeves and a lot of ease in the front. In the example below, we see a more tailored version with a peplum running along the bottom. In this profile, one can see that the back is cut to accommodate the prominent bustle characteristic of the later 1880s. Also, one can see a more structured, rigid sleeve setting the lower arm at a 90 degree angle; this was often referred to as a “sling sleeve.”

Mantle, c. 1885; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.299-1983)

The mantle front often had a long length as with this example:

Pingat, Mantle, c. 1891; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.337)

Pingat, Mantle, c. 1891; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.337)

To get a better idea of scale, here’s a picture of the mantle being worn over a dress:

View of mantle worn over a dress.

And for something a little different, here’s an illustration from the January 1880 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:

Here we see a mantle with the cylindrical silhouette characteristic of the Mid-Bustle Era. Unfortunately, we were unable to find any actual extant examples so illustrations will have to do. Here’s a couple more variations on the basic design:

The above is just a mere fraction of the possibilities with mantles- with just one or two basic shapes, one can create a wide variety of mantles utilizing all manner of fabrics and trim and that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing in the future. 🙂

New Offerings From 1878…

Peacock blue taffeta and black silk velvet with scallops and knife pleats for when you want to look like a fashion plate from 1878, the foundation skirt has a built-in tournure like the original it was patterned from in our museum collection! After the trunk show sale in Tombstone this weekend, it will be offered on our website…if it doesn’t go to a lucky new home!


Another mantle begins to take shape- this design is based off of an original pattern from the late 1880s that I have modified a bit. Below are a few pictures to whet your appetite… 🙂

Tracing out the pattern pieces- this is the back side of the fashion fabric.

Back pieces cut out.

Lining back pieces cut out.

The finished shell. Now to do the sleeves.

Rear view of the shell.

It’s All About The Pattern…

One of the questions that we are asked is: “What pattern did you use?” It’s a tricky question from our perspective, because we are designers and not teachers. Our answer is that we pattern them ourselves, I prefer to carefully “lift” them from original garments; Adam loves original pattern sheets and old diagrams with apportioning scales. It’s how we roll, it’s what we also do for fun.

Long story short: Check out the beautiful copper silk gown in the above picture, it’s a beautifully made antique garment that must have been worn only once or twice. I fell in love with the bodice shape and carefully lifted a pattern, then scaled it up to a “modern” 12, then my own size as well. The violet plaid gown is the size 12, and yet it retains the same shape (except I “shallow v’d” the neck and pointed the tails) as the original bodice.