Thursday, February 16, 2017

A costuming conundrum

A picture in this case really would be worth a thousand words --- if only we had a photograph of the original owner of this elaborate piece of costuming to illustrate how and on what sort of occasions she wore it.

It came to the Lucas County Historical Society during 1967, described in the deed of gift as a "jet-beaded overblouse," from Louise Hickman (Mrs. Verl) Holmes, then living in Emmetsburg, but the daughter and granddaughter of prominent Chariton lawyers, Stephen Decatur and James Harlan Hickman. They built the Hickman Block on the east side of the square.

For reasons lost to time, it's been stored in a drawer ever since and was just brought to light recently when Kathleen discovered it in the Stephens House. Now we're trying to figure out how to display it, a puzzle that may be the reason why it was tucked away in the first place.

The base material is black net to which thousands of jet (lignite) beads of many sizes have been sewn in elaborate patterns. You're looking at the back here and the the wearer --- who would have been a tiny person --- would have slipped her arms through the holes and drawn it together and secured it in some manner at her throat. The long tassel attached somewhere; we're just not quite sure where.

It's also in remarkably good condition. Although a couple of the larger beads have come loose, everything else still is hanging on tight. It's also very heavy, one reason why we're hesitant to "hang" it on a bust or mannequin. We have no way of knowing just how sturdy the net base is.

So was this part of an elaborate mourning costume? Or something worn on formal occasions by a Victorian lady? Mrs. Holmes also donated a large, heavily fringed black silk "Spanish" scarf that may well have been folded and worn over the shoulders as a shawl. Was it worn black over black, or black over a lighter color to emphasize its elaborate beadwork?

I'f you've got ideas, leave a comment here, or on one of the Facebook links to this post.

Louise died at age 61 of cancer in Emmetsburg a year after her donation and her remains were returned to Chariton for burial on the Hickman family lot, just to your left as you enter the main gates of the Chariton Cemetery. Her husband, Verl, employed by the Iowa Conservation Commission, died five years later. (He was not, by the way, related to the Lucas County Holmes families.) There were no children.

It's likely that the overblouse and perhaps the shawl belonged to her mother, Julia Guyle (Mrs. James Harlan) Hickman (1883-1961), or her grandmother, Elizabeth Lovey Teas (Mrs. Stephen Decatur) Hickman (1840-1928). But it's unlikely we'll ever know for sure.

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