The history behind Boston’s first fashionista
What today takes many hands hundreds of hours to complete at a European atelier, a 14-year-old did herself nearly 300 years ago.
Elizabeth Bull, a young woman of privilege in Boston during the1730s, was one of America’s earliest style setters who, historians said, had the money, access, and, most importantly, know-how to create important textiles. Her historic wedding dress made a brief return to public viewing Tuesday at the Old State House.
“The canon of history focuses on this as a domestic practicality,” said Kimberly Alexander, a visiting professor at University of New Hampshire who teaches museum studies and New England material culture. “This isn’t what some people may think of as ‘school girl’ art. This is a conscious design statement.”
Alexander spent the past six months studying Bull as the Bostonian Society prepared to unveil the Colonial-era gown after a lengthy process to conserve it. Alexander said she encountered a woman whose talents could be compared to that of a Raf Simons, the current designer at Christian Dior.
“She was actually designing a very complex piece,” said Alexander, who described the embroidered open gown and petticoat as meticulously thought out. “She designed the way the gown would look, how the flowers would appear, what flowers were selected, what thread she used. It was exact. ”
Every element of the dress, from the hard-to-wear celadon shade likely chosen for its reflection in candlelight to the zealous embroidery on parts of the hidden petticoat, reveals Bull as a designer with “an eye for color and pattern,” Alexander said.
The fashionista was also a socialite. Bull was a young woman of means, the daughter of a deceased merchant and tavern owner, who married Reverend Roger Price, minister of King’s Chapel who laid the first cornerstone at Trinity Church in 1735.
“The dress starts the story of their lives together in colonial Boston,” she said. “It’s the idea of the power couple who understood intrinsically what they wanted to accomplish.”
Patricia Gilrein, collections manager for the Bostonian Society, agreed, saying “the marriage worked on so many levels.”
“He preached the first sermon [at Trinity] four months after they married. She was holding sway in all of these salons,” she said.
The city also provided ample shopping opportunities for Bull, who adapted the popular Baroque silhouette from Europe (think Marie Antoinette) into her early American style using threads and fabrics from the East.
“Boston and Philadelphia were the place to be. She had access to all of it — metallic braids from London to decorate shoes or linens from Holland,” said Alexander. “The idea of global trade — it was right on the waterfront and on her dress.”
For Gilrein and Alexander, the wedding gown was inherited by the Bostonian Society as part of a large donation in 1910. Other Bull pieces including a scarf and baby clothes also represent her talent as both a designer and handicrafter. A thistle pattern, embroidered with metallic thread, adorns the edges of a deep green kerchief while a pair of baby mitts bear an elaborate lace.
“The scale is teeny. I don’t know how she did it without going blind,” Alexander said. “To have this cache is remarkable.”
It’s artistry Gilrein hopes to find a way to display on a more permanent basis. The wedding dress unveiled Tuesday was a one-night-only affair until the Bostonian Society can raise between $10,000 and $20,000 for museum-quality glass cases.
“It’s powerful to have her standing here,” said Gilrein, gesturing to the dress form. “It’d be nice to have that physical female presence in this building.”