Saturday, my husband and I went to an interesting exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago called Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, which examined the clothing portrayed in late 19th-century paintings.
The exhibit naturally made think about how different fashion was in Betsy Bonaparte’s day, and not just because the slim empire gowns she wore as a young woman were so different from the ruched, flounced, ruffled, and bustled gowns of the 1870s. One of the biggest changes was one that doesn’t normally meet the eye—the undergarments of the two periods.
When we think of 19th century undergarments for women, most of us imagine the items I saw at the exhibit: corsets and the loose, long underpants known as drawers. But at the turn of that century, people did not wear underpants. The main undergarment for women was a linen shift, which is a simple underdress. Women wore them under their gowns and then slept in them at night.
Men wore long shirts. Ever wonder why men’s shirts have such long tails? They didn’t wear underpants, so the tails prevented stains from getting on their outer garments. A linen shirt was easier to launder than wool pants. That’s also why paintings of the period show men with coats and waistcoats (vests) hiding most of their shirt except the collar. To show one’s shirt in public was akin to walking around in one’s underwear.
According to Clothing Through American History by Ann Buermann Wass and Mihelle Webb Fandrich, by 1807 a book of instructions for tailors began to recommend that men wear drawers under their outer garments for sanitary reasons.
About time, wouldn’t you say so?
My editor e-mailed me the other day to inquire whether I was right to have characters in 1803 refer back to the Revolutionary War. We both googled the question for a while and finally settled on using War of Independence instead.
Similarly, when my newlywed couple Betsy and Jerome travel to Washington and dine with President Jefferson, I couldn’t refer to the White House. The presidential residence wasn’t painted until after the British burned it in 1814, leaving soot-blackened stone walls. So I had to call it the President’s Mansion. Those are the kinds of mistakes it is so easy to make . . . and which I hope I have avoided. Only time will tell, I suppose. In the meantime, I’ve had a lot of fun tracking down that sort of information.
During her lifetime, Betsy Bonaparte knew many famous and fascinating people. One of her more unusual friendships was with Elbridge Gerry, James Madison’s second vice president. Poor President Madison had the unhappy distinction of having both his vice presidents die during their term of office. The first was George Clinton in 1812, and the second was Elbridge Gerry.
By the time he became vice president, Gerry had put in some fifty years of public service. Originally from Marblehead, Massachusetts, he served in the Continental Congress as a representative of Massachusetts, and he signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He also attended the Constitutional Convention but refused to sign that document because he thought it didn’t create a strong enough central government. He once said,
“The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are dupes of pretended patriots.”
In the decades that followed, Gerry served as U.S. Congressman and as the governor of Massachusetts. It was during his term as governor that he signed a law redistricting the state along highly partisan lines—an incident that became the basis for Gerry’s most enduring legacy. His name was incorporated into our modern term gerrymandering. The -mander part of the term was borrowed from salamander because some wit thought the boundaries of the new districts looked like the outline of a lizard. Even though Gerry’s name was pronounced with a hard G—like Gary—gerrymandering is said with a soft G.
Betsy met Vice-President Gerry while she was living in Washington, D.C. during 1813, perhaps through the Madisons, who were friends. The vice president and the socialite got along well and enjoyed debating the merits of various political systems. Betsy liked having a platonic relationship with a man who appreciated her mind, rather than one who was mesmerized by her beauty. All her life, she longed to receive more recognition of her talents. Unfortunately, the rewarding friendship did not last long. Elbridge Gerry died on November 23, 1814.
About two years ago, I started the process of writing a novel based on the life of Betsy Bonaparte. That November we traveled to her hometown of Baltimore to do research. My first full day there, I visited Betsy’s grave to pay my respects. As you can see, the grave has a high marble slab with carved columns at each corner. Misty rain was falling, and giant crows hopped from gravestone to gravestone cawing. It was like a scene out of Edgar Allan Poe. I was weeping. I promised Betsy that I would do my best to portray her fairly, without some of the stereotypes and harsh judgments that have crept into the historical records about her.
Then I found a violet blooming near her tomb. It was late autumn, yet there was a spring flower. So I picked it. I’ve never been able to smell violets. It always disappointed me bitterly as a little girl. However, the one I picked that rainy November day had a powerful scent. I took it with me to press. I still have it in a notebook I carried that week.
After leaving the cemetery, we visited a historic home that had a piece of Betsy’s furniture on display. It was a home she would have visited during her lifetime. After the tour, I found and bought a box of violet-scented powder in the gift shop. When we got back to the inn, I googled Betsy’s name and the word violet, and I discovered that the flower was associated with those who supported the Bonapartes. That was fitting. In spite of the difficulties she face, Betsy never lost her admiration for the emperor.
The whole story is eerie, n’est-ce pas? To me, it felt as thought Betsy was granting me permission to do this project. And I did my best to keep that graveyard promise to her as I wrote The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte.