Mrs. Lincoln’s Dress: Material Made History

by lissajuliana

Mary Todd LincolnPhoto Credit: Library of Congress

Mary Todd Lincoln
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

There’s a reason that costume designers are nominated for Academy Awards. It takes nothing away from Sally Fields’ performance to say that Mrs. Lincoln’s dress animated Lincoln almost as much as its wearer. The dress—ok, the dresses—nearly had a life of their own. In the receiving line at the White House, Mrs. Lincoln’s ball gown makes her a force of nature not to be ignored and when she sinks to the floor to plead with Lincoln the way her everyday dress nearly engulfs her suggests exactly how her emotional mess threatens to swamp him. While designer Joanna Johnston certainly deserves credit for her thoughtful attention to Lincoln’s love for his shawl, just as the hairdresser did for Thaddeus Stevens’ wig, Mary Todd Lincoln’s dresses stole the show. Fields, as the Mrs., seems at times to be a daguerreotype come straight to life. Lincoln’s dramatic dresses surely owe something to the fact that the script was partly based on the book Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. Elizabeth Keckley was Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and friend but you’ve probably already heard the news that her career as a powerful business woman and powerbroker in the African American community of Washington D.C. didn’t quite make it into the movie. In defense of these and other omissions of black people (cf: post on Frederick Douglass below), the film’s makers point out that the movie is a work of historical fiction.

And so it is. How, after all, can one make a satisfying movie about a man whose voice was never recorded nor moving image ever filmed? This is the conundrum of the past: some of the things we most want to know are unknowable. Imagination helps to fill that void even as it insists on authenticity. That Johnston prohibited the use of plastic buttons even where invisible for any of the film’s 140 or so cast members’ costumes speaks to this. Abraham Lincoln looms too large in the American imagination for anything less to be acceptable. And since the movie is so very talky, we have plenty of time to look at the details and wonder at how vividly real it all seems. The truth about the 13th Amendment and how it came to pass surely lies elsewhere; the emotional satisfaction of seeing and hearing a convincing illusion of 1865 makes even two hours and thirty minutes seem short.

In this, Lincoln’s love of accuracy in all things material calls to mind hardcore Civil War reenactors. These often misunderstood enthusiasts first came to the attention of the wider world with the publication of Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic (1998). Robert Lee Hodge, dressed as a Confederate soldier and photographed with period technology, graced the cover of the book. Hodge took Horwitz on a tour of the hardcore underground where reenactors eschewed the least anachronism. They slept on the ground and spooned together for warmth, ate semi-rancid food out of common pots, and endured the blisters brought on by long marches in ill-fitting boots made to match a time period that did not distinguish left feet from right. Most memorably, Hodge so immersed himself in his quest for authenticity that he developed a marketable specialization: imitating the rigor mortis and bloating typical of dead soldiers in Civil War battlefield photographs.

People often find this level of obsession a little freakish, so much so that one recently engaged woman felt driven to write a light-hearted but also heartfelt explanation of the subculture titled, “So I’m Marrying a Reenactor.” The freak factor was still sufficient for National Geographic to do a one-off reality show titled “Extreme Civil War Reenactors.” (The word “hardcore” presumably sounded a little too much like the adult film industry.) The reenacting community remains divided on whether the hardcores are ruining or saving the pastime, but they march on regardless of mainstream ridicule. So it’s ironic that Daniel Day-Lewis is revered for his rigorous insistence on method acting that has led him to sleep out in the fields of Alabama and survive only on what he shot to prepare for Last of the Mohicans or to have fellow cast members spoon feed him while he played a disabled man in My Left Foot. And hardcores might teach Johnston a thing or two about buttons: they get just the right patina on their uniform buttons by peeing on them.

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