The Story of a Shawl

By Barbara Meger, Curatorial Volunteer

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The ‘Woman of Two Worlds’ Exhibit at The Maryland Historical Society

On display at the Maryland Historical Society, as part of the exhibition “A Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy,” is a beautifully worked fine white muslin shawl lined with chrome yellow silk (xx.5.101).  The gossamer thin cotton muslin is exquisitely embroidered in a paisley motif with a leaf and scroll border worked in satin stitch with openwork.  It was once thought that this shawl may have been worn with the yellow silk dress worn by Elizabeth in her circa 1823 portrait by Firmin Massot.

Elizabeth kept meticulous records which are now part of the MdHS manuscripts collection in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library (MS 142).  Expense journals and extensive inventories made throughout her life reveal a different story about this shawl.  A first mention appears in her “Account of Cloathes,” written on August 10, 1815 which notes, “2 Long Worked Muslin Shawls.”

Commercially embroidered muslin from India for gowns and accessories such as handkerchiefs and scarves had been at the height of fashion since the latter part of the eighteenth century when women’s gowns were simplified from elaborate heavy brocaded ensembles to plain Grecian-style garments.  The MdHS costume collection contains several examples of these gowns, such as the simple muslin gown with long train currently on view in the exhibition.

Massot
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Firmin Massot, 1823, MdHS, XX.5.69

We do not know when or where Elizabeth acquired her two muslin shawls.  When she made the above account she had just arrived in Cheltenham, England where she spent several months shopping and seeing the sights before going on to her first trip to Paris in November, 1815.

She made three more trips to Europe before she listed on July 1, 1839 the “Contents of long trunk with 2 locks to take with me to France” and recorded “2 brodé Indian muslin long shawls.”

We can hypothesize that these are the same shawls she mentioned twenty-four years earlier.  She mentions them again upon arrival in Paris, August 1839, in her “Apparel inventory” recording “2 long india muslin shawls brodés en blanc.”

By 1839, fashion had changed. Silhouettes were still somewhat slender, but fabrics were heavier and vibrant in color. Elizabeth was fifty-five in 1830 and the Massot portrait had been done seven years earlier.  On “25 avril 1840” she noted that she spent 18 francs for yellow silk “for lining scarf,” then three days later, she spent 29 francs 10 sous “to Mlle Trouvair Mallet for mending lace and lining scarf.” Throughout her life, the always frugal Elizabeth “refreshed” her wardrobe by altering garments. Her inventive treatment of the shawl was just one example.

On another trip to Paris in an note dated July 17, 1861, Elizabeth lists among the “contents of Round Top box” “1 white india shawl – 1 yellow india shawl.” Two days later she notes that “Box No 1” contains “1 long white india muslin shawl.” We do not know if one of these shawls is the one she had lined with yellow silk.  In March 1864, when Elizabeth was seventy-nine, she made her last trip to Paris. Among her luggage for that trip, Elizabeth listed in the contents of “flat top box No 1” “1 india Muslin Shawl lined with yellow silk.” Elizabeth’s final mention of “2 long white India Muslin Shawls” is made on May 27, 1875 in a listing of her effects left at “Miss Guinns in my case.” Miss Gwinn owned the boarding house where Elizabeth rented rooms until her death in 1879.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte had a taste for beautiful clothing and kept many of the same garments and accessories throughout her adult life. Always one to keep in pace with the changing fashions, she found ways to revitalize her wardrobe by enlivening it with alterations and adaptations. The advice “renew, reuse, recycle” is nothing new and Elizabeth embraced the philosophy with remarkable style.


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