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Le Bon Ton: A Paris Fashion Magazine, 1859, or How to be Stylish on the Texas Frontier

April 30, 2015

It’s Fashion Week here at the Alamo Research Center! On First Saturday, this May 2, the Alamo Complex is taking a look at fiber-craft and textile history in Texas in memory of Alamo Living History actor and quilt maker extraordinaire, Cathy Jones. The ARC will have a special exhibit showcasing materials from our collection that help us learn more about the clothing choices that people in Texas have made over the years.

From the early days of colonization, looking good was important to women who left their homes and lives in the East for Texas. They worked very hard to maintain their appearances at or near the level they were accustomed to despite being hundreds of miles from the nearest port and thousands of miles from cities with the fanciest couturiers. With no movies, television, or internet, how did the fashionable ladies of the Texas frontier keep up with the most current trends?

Unidentified couple from mid 1800s Texas, probably San Antonio. They are very fashionably attired.  Cassiano-Perez Family Papers, Col 880, DRT Library Collection, Alamo Research Center, San Antonio, Texas.

Unidentified couple from mid 1800s Texas, probably San Antonio. They are very fashionably attired. Cassiano-Perez Family Papers, Col 880, DRT Library Collection, Alamo Research Center, San Antonio, Texas.

Cased daguerreotype of an unidentified woman, mid 1800s. Cumings Family Papers, Col 8978, DRT Library, San Antonio, Texas.

Cased daguerreotype of an unidentified woman, mid 1800s. Cumings Family Papers, Col 8978, DRT Library, San Antonio, Texas.

Cased daguerreotype of an unidentified woman, mid 1800s. In this image, you can see the bonnet that was a must in every woman's wardrobe. Cumings Family Papers, Col 8978, DRT Library, San Antonio, Texas.

Cased daguerreotype of an unidentified woman, mid 1800s. In this image, you can see the bonnet that was a must in every woman’s wardrobe. Cumings Family Papers, Col 8978, DRT Library, San Antonio, Texas.

Almost all clothing for the family was made at home. Many of the fabrics were made of cotton or silk, and the prices could be very high if you had to buy it from the local general mercantile or traveling salesman. Early on, ladies would pattern their new or repurposed dresses after one worn by new arrivals from the East Coast or visitors passing through. The very wealthy and well-connected sometimes had access to the dressmakers and milliners in the cosmopolitan city of New Orleans. As fashions began to change more rapidly around the mid-nineteenth century, however, women began to rely on a new way to trend-watch—the subscription fashion journal.

Some of the best known ladies’ fashion journals were Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, Peterson’s Magazine, and later, Harper’s Bazaar. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas Collection includes a beautiful example of one of these magazines. Le Bon Ton, or “Good Taste,” is a Parisian publication from 1859. The full color fashion plates illustrate bonnets, caps, shawls, sleeves, shirtwaists (blouses), skirts, dresses, petticoats, and outerwear. Subscribers would have been eager to refit their best dresses with the billowing puff sleeves and lace shown in these images.

Fashion plate from Le Bon Ton magazine. Two ladies in a garden showing off the voluminous skirt and sleeves that were in vogue in 1859.  DRT Library Collection.

Fashion plate from Le Bon Ton magazine. Two ladies in a garden showing off the voluminous skirt and sleeves that were in vogue in 1859. DRT Library Collection.

Fashion plate from Le Bon Ton magazine. This image shows children's finery. DRT Library Collection.

Fashion plate from Le Bon Ton magazine. This image shows children’s finery. DRT Library Collection.

Fashion plate from Le Bon Ton magazine. Women would receive these catalog and try to find ways to incorporate these trends into the clothing they already had if they could not afford a whole new dress. A fancy bonnet, a bit of lace, or new sleeves would be just the ticket to revive last season's gown. DRT Library Collection.

Fashion plate from Le Bon Ton magazine. Women would receive these catalog and try to find ways to incorporate these trends into the clothing they already had if they could not afford a whole new dress. A fancy bonnet, a bit of lace, or new sleeves would be just the ticket to revive last season’s gown. DRT Library Collection.

Click here for a full citation of the documents and images included in this entry.

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