This vibrant dress was likely dyed using an early aniline purple dye. Dress, 1863-1870 (THF182481)
In 1856, British chemistry student William Henry Perkin made a groundbreaking discovery. Perkin’s professor, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, encouraged his students to solve real-world problems. High on the list for Hofmann (and chemists all over the world) was the need to create a synthetic version of quinine. The only effective treatment for the life-threatening malaria disease, quinine could only be found in the bark of the rare Cinchona tree. Just a teenager at the time, Perkin decided to tackle this problem in a makeshift laboratory in his parents’ attic while on Easter holiday. Perkin experimented with coal tar—a coal byproduct in which Professor Hofmann saw promise—and made his discovery. No, not the discovery of a synthetic quinine, but something altogether different and extraordinarily significant nonetheless.
Perkin’s coal tar experiments resulted in a dark-colored sludge which dyed cloth a vibrant purple color. The purple dye was colorfast too (meaning it did not fade easily). He had discovered aniline purple—also known as mauveine or Perkin’s mauve—the first synthetic dye. Though this was not the medical miracle he had initially sought, he immediately understood the vast significance and marketability of a colorfast, synthetic dye.
Prior to Perkin’s discovery, natural dyes were used to color fabrics and inks and were derived primarily from plants, invertebrates, and minerals. Extracting natural dyes was time consuming and certain colors were rare. For example, arguably the most precious natural dye also happened to be a vibrant purple, called Tyrian Purple. This dye was found in the glands of several species of predatory sea snails. Each snail contained just a small amount of dye, so it took tens of thousands of sea snails to dye a garment a deep purple. Tyrian purple was so expensive that the very wealthy could afford to wear it. It’s no wonder purple was seen as the color of royalty!
William Henry Perkin turned out to be multi-talented, finding success both as a chemist and as an entrepreneur. By 1857, with the help of his family, he began commercially manufacturing his aniline dye near London. He first produced purple, but other colors soon followed. The water in the nearby Grand Union Canal was said to have turned a different color each week depending on what dyes were being made. In 1862, Queen Victoria attended the Great London Exposition in a gown dyed with Perkin’s mauve and the color took off. Newspapers even reported a “mauve mania” in the 1860s! These new synthetic dyes were affordable too and other manufacturers around the world began to produce them. By 1880, companies like The Diamond Dye Company of Vermont sold many colors of dye—from magenta to gold or even “drab”—for just 10 cents apiece.
Perkin’s discovery spawned an entirely new industry that transformed the world’s access to color. It is fitting that the very first synthetic dye created was purple—the color of Roman emperors and royalty could now be purchased for pennies. Louis Pasteur’s famous quote, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” characterizes Perkin’s serendipitous discovery well. His accidental discovery was far from simple luck – others may have dismissed it as a failed experiment. Instead, Perkin recognized the potential in his mistake and seized the opportunity to bring color to the masses.
Katherine White is an Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.
The costumes featured in Hallowe’en at Greenfield Village are made for all types of weather conditions. Just like trick-or-treaters walking through their own neighborhoods on October 31, our presenters and staff members must be ready for any weather scenario.
Try these tips from our costuming experts in our Period Clothing Studio.
Our Hallowe’en costumes are made of a water resistant, breathable, nylon athletic material called Supplex, so that they can be worn in the rain. When that material isn’t used, our lightweight cottons are sprayed with Scotchguard or have a wool outer layer that naturally protects the wearer. If you purchase a costume made of thin polyester, make sure you can layer a windbreaker or waterproof athletic shirt underneath for rainy weather. Most of the characters during Hallowe’en also have umbrellas that match their outfits in case rain is in the forecast.
When the temperatures are warmer than normal, our costumes are built to be worn over lightweight cotton layers, like T-shirts and shorts or leggings to wick away sweat. Conversely, thermal underlayers can be added for cold weather to add protection without added bulk.
Need a Greenfield Village example? The Lion costume is worn over cotton layers with an ice pack vest to keep the presenter cool in the heat. The vest is not worn during cold weather.
Some of our costumes have additional overlayers for very cold weather, but they are built into the design. For example, the Mermaid has a separate bodice lined in wool to be worn over the sequin-and-net bodice of the dress, and has earmuffs decorated with hair wefts to look as though they are a part of her wig.
Don’t forget - wear comfortable, waterproof, slip-resistant shoes, just like us. You can always cover sneakers with spats or ice skate covers to match your costume.
Visibility is key when it comes to creating a costume. Many of our costumes feature waterproof lighting which can be an added safety feature for costumes worn in the dark. We use decorative fairy lights, like those used for special outdoor events, which have waterproof battery packs. The lighting is sewn into channels under a sheer decorative layer or tacked into the costume with the battery packs easily accessible at the waistband.
If you are wearing a mask, practice wearing it in low lighting before wearing it outside. You can cut away the eye holes in plastic masks or extend your peripheral vision by swapping out sheer jersey eye holes in soft masks with tulle or net and use makeup around your eyes to disguise the transition.
Halloween costumes and accessories don’t have to be brand new. Try repurposing and upcycling old clothing by dyeing it and then adding trim to give texture. This year our female pirate costumes are repurposed 18th century dresses from stock that were dyed, altered, and trimmed to fit the theme. A past mermaid costume net cape was repurposed as trim in the yellow ochre pirate’s dress by dyeing it and stitching it to the peplum to create texture.
Is your costume’s color not quite right or the fabric can’t be dyed? Try using fabric paint and a sponge to gently tone down the color. The Bad Fairy wings were originally a bright green metallic lace, but we sponge painted over the material with emerald green, spruce green, and navy fabric paints to create a darker ombre effect to match the rest of the costume. But watch that paint - some must be heat set, while others can take 24-48 hours to fully dry.
Still looking for costume inspiration? Try taking a stroll down our pumpkin-lit path this month during Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village. You never know which character may ignite the Halloween maker in you.
Anne Suchyta Devlin is Senior Manager of the Studio at The Henry Ford.
Amelia Earhart. We know her as a famous aviatrix—the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932 and the daring pilot who disappeared attempting an around-the-world flight in 1937.
But long before the celebrity fashion brand frenzy of more recent decades—think Jaclyn Smith, Jessica Simpson, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Jay Z and countless others—Amelia Earhart had her own fashion line.
Yes, the motivation was to make money. Not to support a lavish lifestyle, but to finance her true passion—the adventure of flying.
During the first weekend of September, Greenfield Village celebrated the exciting sounds, scents, and sights of hundreds of vintage vehicles from the 1890s through 1932 during the 63rd annual Old Car Festival, America’s longest running antique car show. Many proud antique vehicle owners not only bring their cars, but get into the spirit of the event by dressing to match their car’s era which adds to the special ambience of this particular weekend long event.
Annually on the Saturday night of the festival, many visitors gather at the reviewing stand near the Thomas Edison statue to listen the talented Hotel Savarine Society Orchestra perform many of the popular songs of the 1920s while watching a group of energetic and enthusiastic dancers outfitted in elegant mid-1920s period clothing perform such dances as the Charleston, foxtrot and tango. Just as all the reproduction clothing and accessories in Greenfield Village are researched, designed and created on sight by The Clothing Studio of The Henry Ford, so are the vintage looks worn by the dancers.
This year, The Clothing Studio team worked collaboratively with the Creative Programs staff to create a more formal, “dressed up” head-to-toe 1920s look for the Old Car Festival dancers than in years past. The Roaring Twenties represented a break with traditions and the start to the modern age. It was a prosperous and exuberant time in history and, of course, the fashions of the time reflected this vibrancy. One of our challenges with creating these period accurate looks was that the clothing and accessories were not just for show – they also needed to be functional and durable since the dancers would be strolling through the village prior to spending two very active hours dancing outside.
Since men’s formal wear has generally changed little in over a hundred years, male dancers were elegantly dressed in a mix of black tuxedo styles which were appropriate for that era and remain stylish today. For formal occasions in the 1920s, men wore their tuxedos with white gloves and (when outdoors) top hats or even bowler hats. Special classically inspired touches such as suspenders, French cuffs with cufflinks and shoe spats helped to create an authentic look for each of our gentleman dancers.
As for the ladies, The Clothing Studio focused on many of the fashionable trends of the era celebrating new-found freedoms women enjoyed in the 1920s ranging from the right to vote to more relaxed fashions which finally freed women from the constraints of the corset. Bare arms and the appearance of bare legs with nude colored seamed stockings as well as shorter skirt lengths were visible signs of new celebrated relaxed attitudes. Some of the trends featured in the stunning outfits worn by our Old Car Festival female dancers included beaded fabrics, tiered shirts, drop waists, straight simple silhouettes and embellished shoes.
If you missed the vintage cars and fashions featured at this year’s Old Car Festival in Greenfield Village, be sure to mark your calendar for next year’s 64th annual Old Car Festival in September. Every year there is always a different mix of amazing vintage cars (and fashion) to enjoy.
Written by Tracy Donohue, General Manager, The Clothing Studio at The Henry Ford. Photos by Lindsey Grudnicki.
One of the most distinctive features of Greenfield Village is the period-authentic clothing worn by the presenters, all created on site by our Clothing Studio. Many of the designs they create are based on objects from our own costume collection, including clothing, shoes, hats, and other accessories. We’ve just digitized a selection of bonnets, including this delicate 19th century example. See detail shots of two dozen bonnets, ranging from the very simple to the very ornate, in our Digital Collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Walk into Greenfield Village and 300 years of American history is in motion. Model Ts chug along the streets, the smells of open-hearth cooking and canning fill the air at working century-old farmhouses, Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory and the Wright Brothers Cycle Shop are charged with activity and excitement. And all are waiting for you to step inside, make yourself welcome and experience longtime traditions.
In one quiet corner sits Cohen Millinery, moved to Greenfield Village from its original location in Detroit, Michigan’s Corktown, where it was operated in the 1890s by Mrs. “D.” Elizabeth Cohen. The young widow lived upstairs and supported her four children by selling “fancy goods, dry goods and gents’ furnishings” on the first floor. Cohen became best known, however, for her fabulous hats, which she bought wholesale and trimmed with a wide assortment of silk flowers, colorful ribbons, feathers and even whole stuffed birds.
Thanks to celebrities such as Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, more and more women are experimenting with hats again. But for ladies in the late 1800s, hats weren’t optional accessories worn for fun. A respectable woman never left home without one — the more frills, the better.
“The more you had on your hat, the wealthier you were thought to be,” said Greenfield Village historic presenter Anora Zeiler, one of seven milliners working at Cohen Millinery today.
Greenfield Village guests visiting the charming shop can browse a colorful array of authentic antique hats and other accessories, such as ornate hair combs and hatpins, delicate ladies’ gloves, and men’s suspenders and ties. They can also chat with the milliners — all dressed in period costume — as they layer a variety of adornments on felt or straw hats, always keeping with the style of the 1880s and 1890s.
“We sew on each piece separately and in the proper order, careful to hide the stitches,” Zeiler said.
Last year, Cohen Millinery brought another part of history forward to the current day, allowing visitors to not only admire the milliners at work and the headwear on the shelves but to purchase handmade beauties on site as ladies did more than a century ago. Each properly packaged in period hatboxes tied with bows.
“We’re making hats in style again,” said Zeiler proudly.
Dress, Worn by Elizabeth Parke Firestone, 1950 (Object ID: 92.263.43)
Elizabeth Parke Firestone (1897-1990) was destined to develop a refined sense of fashion. Born the daughter of a wealthy Decatur, Ill., businessman, she was given the opportunity to study in Europe in her mid-teens. Through this adventure she developed a deep appreciation for French culture, particularly French decorative arts. She also nurtured a lifelong love of dancing, which influenced not only her fashion sense but her choice of spouse.
Elizabeth met Harvey S. Firestone, Jr., at a dance. Their 1921 wedding was the union of two well-established business families, and their celebration was the most lavish Decatur had ever seen. It began a 52-year marriage, during which the couple raised four children at "Twin Oaks," their Akron, Ohio, home. They also maintained homes in New York City and Newport, R.I.
Elizabeth's background prepared her well for her role of representing her husband and family in the most influential business and social circles of the time. She joined her husband on business trips, traveling the United States, Europe and Asia throughout their marriage. She looked to both the New York and Paris fashion scenes to find couturiers who met her style standards, then worked through both correspondence and visits to modify their designs to fit her best features.
Evening Dress, Worn by Elizabeth Parke Firestone, 1947
Elizabeth was meticulous about her looks, leaving no detail unattended. Her fair skin became radiant when she wore pinks and blues, and most of her clothing can be found in variations of these shades. Multiple matching gloves, shoes, purses and hats were commissioned for each outfit, so that replacements would be readily available in case of damage.
Trim, blonde and blue-eyed, Elizabeth looked stunning in designer gowns and was frequently photographed for fashion and society magazines. Well into her 50s her fashions were the talk of society, and her style-both classy and classic-was frequently noted in the press. In the 1950s she was named one of the "Best Dressed Women in the World" by the Couture Group of the New York Dress Institute along with the Duchess of Windsor and Hollywood actresses including Olivia de Havilland.
Prior to her death, Elizabeth and her family realized that the clothing she owned offered a rich and sweeping view of fashion history to future generations, and a large segment of her wardrobe was donated to The Henry Ford. Today that collection includes more than 1,000 dresses, shoes, gloves and other accessories, from early home-sewn creations including her wedding dress to custom-made American and European designer fashions. Each dress is truly a work of art, crafted by inventive couturiers for a patron who not only collaborated on the result, but well understood the contribution each made to the life of her family and the society of the day.