Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: Fashionista

Barbara

Barbara Meger

For the past year, the Maryland Historical Society has been incredibly lucky to have the expertise of curatorial volunteer, Barbara Meger.**

Barbara has been a serious student of needlework, historic textiles and fashion for over 45 years and brings remarkable knowledge and insights to the museum’s textile collection.

Over the past six months, Barbara has immersed herself in the textiles associated with Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, meticulously examining and documenting more than 200 textiles as well as studying Elizabeth’s diaries, letters and account books. Her discoveries reveal fascinating details about Elizabeth, the fashionista.

These are some of the most intriguing facts Barbara has discovered about Elizabeth.

* “Elizabeth was a lace hoarder,” Barbara remarked, after spending weeks slowly accessing, measuring and photographing two enormous boxes of Elizabeth’s lace. We don’t think she threw a single piece of lace out!

3.77F.1; 3.77G.37; 3.77G.78A-B  Black & White Lace Scraps belonging to Betsy Bonaparte with business cards, group photo.  Not dated. Artist unknown. Textiles/Bonaparte

3.77F.1; 3.77G.37; 3.77G.78A-B
Black & White Lace Scraps belonging to Betsy Bonaparte with business cards, group photo.
Not dated.
Artist unknown.
Textiles/Bonaparte

* Elizabeth loved shoes! She seemed to have a continual need for a new pair of shoes!

Only one pair of Elizabeth’s shoes survives in the museum’s collection, a dainty pair of white kidskin pumps that date to the 1870s. Old age did not mean Elizabeth lost her fashion sense. In her late 80s, Elizabeth was still wearing the shoes of a young woman.

Betsy shoes 001

1954.72.1 a & b
Gift of Miss Ida Parks

 

* Elizabeth had a large wardrobe. Barbara’s research has helped us to understand more about Elizabeth’s shopping habits. Despite her frugality, she bought the best and was always at the height of fashion.

Here is an excerpt of Barbara’s research. Keep checking the blog for future posts about her discoveries!

Summary Fabric Acquisitions 1826-1849

In the Manuscripts Collection, specifically Box 13A, at the Maryland Historical Society are numerous journals, financial and expense records kept by Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte.  Included are records of itemized expenses that cover 16 years between 1826-1849.  These expenses often coincide with upcoming travel to Europe or purchases made while living abroad.

It has been assumed that Elizabeth was a frugal woman who is said to have removed laces and trimmings from her clothing for refashioning into the latest style.  This is based on over 200 items in the MdHS collection, some still bound in silk ribbon and marked in Elizabeth’s hand with the precise yardage.  The summary, below, refutes this idea.

Elizabeth purchased vast quantities of fabrics.  Her records show that she also bought accompanying laces, ribbons, fringes, etc. in order to have an ensemble made up by a local dressmaker.  Why do so many textiles “scraps” remain?  Elizabeth loved beautiful things and recognized superior quality; she could not bear to throw such things away.  All one needs to do is visit the sewing room or studio of a modern day seamstress or textiles enthusiast and see her “stash” to recognize a kindred spirit.

The summary below covers only the number of purchases of fabric yardage plus the quantity for a given year.  [Note:  A yard equals 36”; a meter is 39.37”; an ell is 45”.  Brach is a derivation of braccio which is equivalent to the English ell or 45”.]

Year

Location

# purchases

# yards

# meters

# ells

# brachs

1826 Florence

12

83

1827 Florence

12

127

1828 Florence

13

25

77

1829 Florence

15

136½

1830 Florence

2

14

Paris

3

18

Geneva

6

32

1831 Florence

2

16

Geneva

7

40

1832 Geneva

8

40¼

1839 Geneva

4

19½

1840 Paris

15

10

13

81½

Baltimore

3

27

Washington

2

20

Baltimore

5

68

1843 Baltimore

2

31

New York

2

43

1844 Baltimore

3

68

1845 Baltimore

4

65

New York

1

9

1846 Baltimore

1

20

1847 Baltimore

6

75½

1848 Baltimore

14

194

1849 Baltimore

1

12

London

7

74½

** Barbara Meger is a designer and teacher of English smocking and related needlearts. Her current focus is mixed media, combining the disciplines of smocking, embroidery, beading and fabric manipulation. Her original designs have won needlework and design show awards and include a Christmas stocking in the permanent collection of the White House. She is a member of The Embroiderers’ Guild of America, The Smocking Arts Guild of America and The American Sewing Guild. In addition to her volunteer service with the Maryland Historical Society, she also volunteers with the Historic Annapolis Foundation where she has researched and coordinated the reproduction of textiles. Barbara lives in Crofton, Maryland


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