While athleisure wear and wireless headphones may be the ensemble of choice for today’s East End glitterati, the social set of a century ago donned lace tea gowns, plumed hats and parasols. With the newly built railroad shuttling well-to-do Manhattanites out to the South Fork in the late 19th century, the summer playground swiftly became known more for its extravagant soirees than simple rural pastimes.
“High Style in the Gilded Age: Southampton 1870-1930” at the village’s stately Rogers Mansion focuses on a dozen local doyenne influencers of the period. “When you think of an exhibition about 12 society women, you might say, ‘Ugh, boring,’ but their lives were very interesting. There is lots of juice — elopements, suicides, dramatic goings-on,” says show curator Mary Cummings. Her interest in many of them was piqued while researching “Saving Sin City,” her recently published account of events surrounding the high-profile murder of Gilded Age architect Stanford White.
And, as evidenced by the assemblage of photographs, accessories, ball gowns and formal dresses on display, these women engaged in such goings-on in style. “They dazzled, but it was so complicated to wear all that — almost like wearing actual costumes,” says Cummings of the exhibited fashions from both the Southampton History Museum and the Suffolk County Historical Society collections.
Decked out in their best finery, the identical Cryder triplets feature among the prominent women presented in the show’s early portraits. “They were a sensation. They could hardly walk on the street,” says Cummings. The modish sisters were usually clad in the era’s bustle skirts and leg-o-mutton sleeves, but they were also known for an innovative wardrobe accent. “They wore different color ribbons to help suitors differentiate between them and not be humiliated,” explains Cummings.
While dedicated Southampton socialite Lily Whitney Barney and grande dame Louisa Robb Livingston took their station very seriously, a few rebelled. Mary Millicent Rogers, a celebrated beauty and daughter of Standard Oil heir Colonel Rogers, could be spotted at area shindigs liberated from the confines of a corset in a short, loose-fitting flapper dress. Frances “Tanty” Breese Miller chose to divorce her well-heeled husband and pursue a career as a recognized painter and textile designer.
Also demonstrating a budding fashion for independence is the partial reconstruction of Mrs. Enoch’s millinery shop in a small section of the exhibition, accompanied by two circa-1900 images of the original. “It was unusual then for women to be entrepreneurial,” says Cummings of the local female-owned business selling hats, trimmings and the like. Its success, however, is not surprising.
“In true debutante fashion,” notes the museum’s textile historian Taylor Martin, “many of these women didn't shy away from adding to their ensembles a little something extra.”
WHAT “High Style in the Gilded Age: Southampton 1870-1930”
WHEN | WHERE 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, through Aug. 8, 2020, Rogers Mansion, 17 Meeting House Lane, Southampton
INFO $5 adults, free ages 17 and younger; 631-283-2494, southamptonhistory.org