This weekend, as many of us will be attending or planning holiday parties, spending time with family and friends, and generally making merry, we’ll stop to take a look at the vignette in the Styling an American Family exhibition titled “After the Dance.” At the south end of the dining room, five young ladies are dressed for a formal night out dancing in 1914. They have returned home, after the dance, rolled up the carpet and brought out the Victrola to continue the festivities into the morning hours.
Going to dances was extremely popular, as it allowed young men and women to socialize directly. It also allowed time for married couples to catch up with friends and acquaintances. Dances were the place to hear favorite musical pieces, learn about current popular music, and learn all the latest dances, which were promoted by the exhibition dance couple Vernon and Irene Castle.
Dances could be accomplished with 25 couples or less, a cleared space with a bare wood floor suitable for dancing, a small buffet supper and piano accompaniment. A dance started earliest at 9:30 pm and rarely lasted past 1:00 am. Dances were held in peoples’ homes but were also produced as benefits in public spaces like hospital halls or for profit in hotel parlors. By contrast, a ball was the largest and most formal of dances, requiring well over 25 couples, a grand space, a full orchestra and a dinner of several courses. Balls started at 10:30pm at the earliest and lasted until 3 or 4am.
A young woman was accompanied to a public dance by her mother, grandmother or unmarried aunt to act as chaperone. At someone’s home, chaperones were unnecessary, since the matron of the house was considered an appropriate chaperone for the group. A chaperone was not just the guardian of a young lady’s virtue. If her ward was shy, it was the chaperone’s task to make sure the younger woman was introduced to other young people and to keep her involved in the evening. An outgoing young woman needn’t stay by her chaperone’s side, but should check back with her periodically throughout the evening. Dancing provided young people with some of the only ‘alone time’ they were allowed in public. Having a dance with a friend or crush offered a few minutes of intimate time without the chaperone directly by a young lady’s side.
The hostess of the dance stood at the entrance to the dance space to receive each guest until the dancing started. If the dance were thrown in someone’s honor, the honoree would stand and receive with the hostess. The hostess was expected to look out for shy and unattended girls, make them feel welcome and see that they were included.
Each attendee, female as well as male, was issued a dance card, usually a small booklet with a tiny attached pencil. The dance card listed the dances for the evening (two-steps, waltzes and fox-trots were very popular) and it was a young man’s pleasure to ask young ladies to place their names on a specific dance for the evening, and he would place her name on the same dance on his dance card. It was a snub for either partner to miss a dance. It was also bad form to dance with the same person more than twice unless they were engaged to be married.
Evening dress was the most formal dress of the day and could also be the most colorful. Sleeve lengths could go as high as the shoulder and necklines could drop. Hemlines were as high as the ankle for ease of movement. In the evening, a young woman could wear colorful gowns with a little sparkle and minimal jewelry but not enough to be accused of luring men inappropriately. Married women could wear as much jewelry and sparkle as they pleased.
Evening and dance dresses followed fashion in 1914 with fuller skirts, lowers necklines and raised hems to show off all the fancy footwork of the latest dances. Their soft, bright colors took inspiration from the costumes of the Russian Ballet, making the dresses look like fairytale creations. Dance dresses were often altered so one would never wear the same dress twice. Girls would change necklines, add ribbons or lace, and make other alterations at home to constantly update their dance attire. Long spill curls, like we see here were popularized by the actress Mary Pickford.
During dances at Craftsman Farms, as well as weddings, receptions and teas, the dining room would have been in active use. It was fashionable to serve light meals buffet-style for these occasions. The Stickley’s sideboard would have been utilized for the display and serving of food, such as salads (aspics), bonbons, cake, sandwiches and finger foods like nuts and dried fruits. The dining table would have been used to serve drinks such as wines, punch, lemonade and coffee. Rather than eating at the dining table, food was eaten at drop-leaf tables, folding tables or the makeshift sawhorse tables Mr. Stickley had made for parties and gatherings.
Dressing rooms were often provided for both male and female attendees with servants to watch over garments and help keep the spaces tidy. Dressing rooms allowed women and men to leave behind wraps, coats, hats, etc. and could be stocked with light drinks, like sparkling water, for refreshment.
Popular songs of the day included, Glow Worm, The Green Grass Grew All Around and Shine On Harvest Moon. The advent of the Victrola made it possible to have music in the home without a live band or someone at the piano. The phonograph on display here was extremely modern for the time for two reasons: most recorded music was still on wax cylinders and most players still used large amplification horns. The doors on the front of this unit control the volume. This was probably considered a portable model.
Styling an American Family: The 1910s at Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Farms is an exhibition of historic fashions from Syracuse University’s Sue Ann Genet Costume Collection. The exhibition, on view through January 6, 2013, consists of 35 mannequins in historic period dress arranged in 9 environmental vignettes that illustrate some of the emblematic everyday activities and pursuits of an upper middle class American family in the 1910s, giving visitors the unique opportunity to view the human form within Gustav Stickley’s architectural masterpiece.