A Jacket for Grand Adventures
Updated: Feb 12
Ice skating, hiking, or simply strolling through town, this young woman looks prepared for the cold weather, and with her steely, determined expression, she's ready for activity as soon as she leaves the photography studio!
I absolutely love this photograph, and unlike many of the others I have, I actively display it in my library - mostly because of her stray ringlets, her expression, the saucy placement of her hat, and those extraordinarily large gigot sleeves! She's a walking statement piece, and incredibly in-fashion for the time! I also love that you can almost feel the texture of her wool coat and her Mongolian lamb fur scarf.
Gigot sleeves, or leg-of-mutton sleeves, were popular throughout several periods of fashion history, with the first being in the 1830s. Coming off a period of elongated empire waistlines and simple, sleek lines of the 1820s, the silhouette of the 1830s changed drastically into gently sloping shoulders, wide puffed sleeves to the elbow, and full bell skirts. Those bloomer-style sleeves started well below the shoulder to give the wearer the sloping 'romantic' look. This style lasted until 1836.
Shoulders stayed relatively subdued until the 1890s, when they started creeping upward and outward again. The full resurgence of the gigot sleeves began as early as 1892, and then grew far bigger than their 1830s counterparts. If you were wealthy and kept up with the ladies fashion journals, which showcased Paris, London, and New York fashion plates, you stayed current in your wardrobe. As quickly as a style appeared, it disappeared almost as quickly! Below are all fashion plates and actual garments in museum collections between 1894 and 1896.
Many of the gigot sleeves during the 1890s were so big they had to utilize special supports, almost like a bustle, that puffed out the fabric to give them their balloon like shape.
Because of the volume of the sleeves, I'm dating the woman in the photograph's coat to 1894-1896, which would have definitely used some sort of understructure.
Upon closer inspection, I did notice that her hat includes what looks like a bird at the left of the image.
This in itself is an interesting development, as hats with real plumage were in high demand by haute couture stores throughout the country. Several bird species were close to extinction because of it. Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, wrote "more than 5 million birds were being massacred yearly to satisfy the booming North American millinery trade....Some women even wanted a stuffed owl head on their bonnets and a full hummingbird wrapped in bejeweled vegetation as a brooch." While I can't quite tell if it's a real bird, she does have real ostrich feathers adorning the brim. By 1897, several groups were fighting for the conservation of birds, along with the eradication of the use of plumage on hats. It wasn't until 1918 that an act declared the killing, capturing, possessing, etc of any migratory bird or feathers illegal.
This type of photograph, a thin sepia toned photograph attached to a card backing, is known as a cabinet card. They were popular after the 1870s, and some photographers even continued to use them up to World War I. The great thing about cabinet cards is that the photographer put their business name and location either on the front or reverse of the cardboard mount, making it easy to track the location of the photographer, and potentially the sitter, if you're lucky. Our photographer did just that: Cole from Pekin, Illinois, in flashy silver metallic debossing, or an indentation into the paper, which was then filled with silver ink.
Henry Hobart Cole (1833) was known as Pekin's "pioneer photographer." The youngest of 10, H.H. Cole and his brother Roderick left New York in 1850 to start a photography business out west. Roderick had learned the art of the daguerreotype, and 17 year old Henry worked for him, but not for long. Only a year later, Henry opened 'Cole's Fine Art and Photographic Gallery, in direct competition with his brother. Henry bought out Roderick in 1858, and he continued to photograph the town and its residents. Roderick gave up photography altogether; I'm guessing the competition with his brother took it out of him. He became a dairy farmer.
Cole has several claims to fame. At some point during the 1850s-60s, Henry roomed with Robert Ingersoll, agnostic author and orator both popular and controversial at the time, eventually photographing him in 1876. Cole is also rumored to be the first individual in the state of Illinois outside of Chicago to offer paper photos to clients, and finally, he created a legacy of a book sold to residents and tourists, called 'Souvenir of Perkin,' of prominent Pekin homes and buildings.
Of greater note, however, is a photograph Cole took of a beardless, but still gaunt, Abraham Lincoln. It's up for debate on whether Henry or Roderick took the photo, but it was taken during Lincoln's travel throughout Illinois during the Douglas-Lincoln debates of 1858. The photograph was widely reproduced on the Illinois campaign ribbons for Lincoln in 1860. Unfortunately, the Gilder Lehrman Institute has this photo under lock and key and cannot be accessed without a subscription. I did find it, however, when it was up for auction through Christie's in 1999. They have Roderick listed as the photographer.
H. H. Cole retired from photographs in 1911, remaining near Pekin the rest of his life.
Because the young woman featured in the photograph in this post is dressed to the nines, and could afford to have her photograph taken, I was hoping she was of a prominent family in Pekin. I reached out to the Archives in Tazewell County, Illinois, and unfortunately, they don't have her image in their Cole database, but will be including her as part of their 'Mystery Photo' program, which is included in a newsletter sent to their members, in social media, and on their website. Fingers crossed someone knows who she is!