ALBANY — Step into the local haute couture of the 1800s: tortoiseshell combs, ruched sleeves, corsets and hair extensions.
“I wanted people to understand that Albany was not the backwater,” said Diane Shewchuk, a curator at the Albany Institute of History and Art.
Albany actually held everything that one needed to be fashionable in the 19th century, and the latest exhibit to open at the Institute, “The Fashionable Portrait,” is a tribute to that.
This year, much of the Institute’s exhibit space will be dedicated to local fashions. Starting in October, Victorian fashion will take over the first floor of the Institute for “Well-Dressed in Victorian Albany: 19th Century Fashion from Albany Institute Collection.” It will feature some of the most extravagant looks from the time period and which The Costumer will be helping to pull together.
The second floor is a sort of preview and a complement to that exhibit. “The Fashionable Portrait,” gives a glimpse into the importance of fashion in the Capital Region during the 19th century.
In Shewchuk’s research for the exhibit, she found that in the 1800s, Albany was teeming with high-class tailors, seamstresses, bonnet bleachers, shoemakers, and tortoiseshell comb makers. Many of these products and services became available to Albany residents during the 1820s and impacted the way residents dressed.
The exhibit features major public figures and members of high society, along with some lawmakers and soldiers.
Martin Van Buren’s portrait greets viewers as they enter the exhibit. His eccentric hair and carefully tailored waistcoat and stock cuts a dramatic figure, captured by Albany painter Ezra Ames in 1828.
Van Buren’s history is relatively well-known, but Shewchuk dug through city directories and other historical documents to find interesting stories to pair with the portraits of the lesser known figures.
There’s debutante Angelica Schuyler Crosby, who was considered one of New York’s great beauties, shown in a dramatic pink and white gown, holding flowers and perched on a rustic bench.
A few feet away from her hangs a portrait of Mary Parker Corning. She was an Albany resident known for her activism, particularly her anti-suffrage support.
“Albany was the stronghold of the anti-suffrage movement,” Shewchuk said. Corning and her sister and cousins were major supporters of the movement and referred to themselves as “antis.” Ostrich feathers adorn the top of Corning’s ball gown and the top of a bustle can just be seen in the background. While this probably hung in the family’s living room or dining room for many years, Shewchuk said that it was also done on the cusp of the popularity of photographs and the decline of portraits.
“These later ones are unusual because we also have photographs of [them],” Shewchuk said.
Other portraits give a glimpse into the changing trends of the decades: One features exaggerated sleeves by the shoulders and another with sleeves billowing out at the elbows.
The exhibit also features miniature portraits from the century. To see the exhibit, visit the Albany Institute of History and Art from now until March 31, 2018.
For more on the exhibit, visit albanyinstitute.org.