Finding First Lady Frances at the MdHS Fashion Archives

Nora Ellen Carleson, 2018 Summer Fashion Archives Intern

Prior to coming to the Maryland Historical Society’s Fashion Archives I had ever only heard of one Baltimore Dressmaker. That dressmaker was Lottie Barton and I only knew of her because of my time studying the clothes of the nation’s First Ladies at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Ms. Barton, I recalled had created clothing for First Lady Frances Folsom Cleveland.

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Evening Gown (label on interior petersham). Lottie Barton, Baltimore, Maryland, c.1890, silk brocade, silk taffeta, silk grosgrain, brass, silk twill, metal, silk satin, Maryland Historical Society, 78.111.2, Gift of the Children of Richard Folsom Cleveland (George Maxwell Cleveland, Margaret Folsom Cleveland, Thomas Grover Cleveland, Charlotte C. Look, Ann Cleveland Robertson, and Frances Cleveland Corcoran).

Summer interns in the Fashion Archives each choose a topic of interest and focus their work on the collections around that question, period. This summer, I’m examining the world of Baltimore dressmakers from about 1870-1920.I of course was hoping that I would find something by Ms. Barton, however, I would have never guessed what I was about to help re-discover in the vast collections.

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Evening Gown (front of bodice). Lottie Barton, Baltimore, Maryland, c.1890, silk brocade, silk taffeta, silk grosgrain, brass, silk twill, metal, silk satin, Maryland Historical Society, 78.111.2, Gift of the Children of Richard Folsom Cleveland (George Maxwell Cleveland, Margaret Folsom Cleveland, Thomas Grover Cleveland, Charlotte C. Look, Ann Cleveland Robertson, and Frances Cleveland Corcoran).

While looking through the collection for garments with labels of Baltimore dressmakers a “Barton, Baltimore” label caught my eye. The label was attached to a stunning evening gown of cream and white silk satin and brocade. The bodice, seen above, had large puffed petal sleeves, a low wide rounded collar known as décolleté style, and bronzed metal beads, punched metal sequins, and blown glass beads adorning the front in patterns of bows, flowing ribbons, and feather plumes on both the front and back. Unfamiliar with the donor number, the Fashion Archives team went into research mode exploring the museum’s documents to discover not only who donated this wonderful gown, but who may have worn it.

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Evening Gown (detail of beading on bodice). Lottie Barton, Baltimore, Maryland, c.1890, silk brocade, silk taffeta, silk grosgrain, brass, silk twill, metal, silk satin, Maryland Historical Society, 78.111.2, Gift of the Children of Richard Folsom Cleveland (George Maxwell Cleveland, Margaret Folsom Cleveland, Thomas Grover Cleveland, Charlotte C. Look, Ann Cleveland Robertson, and Frances Cleveland Corcoran).

Imagine our astonishment when we discovered, this beautiful evening dress, made by Lottie Barton, given by the six grandchildren of her son Richard, was once worn by First Lady Frances Folsom Cleveland, wife of President Grover Cleveland, and that there was another in the collection!

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Afternoon / reception dress. Lottie Barton, Baltimore, Maryland, c.1890, silk damask, silk taffeta, lace, silk twill, metal, silk satin, Maryland Historical Society, 78.111.1, Gift of the Children of Richard Folsom Cleveland (George Maxwell Cleveland, Margaret Folsom Cleveland, Thomas Grover Cleveland, Charlotte C. Look, Ann Cleveland Robertson, and Frances Cleveland Corcoran).

The other Barton gown worn by First Lady Cleveland in the MdHS collection is an afternoon or reception dress. Like the beaded and white evening dress, it features a low neckline and delicate, feminine details. These were staples of the garments of First Lady Cleveland, whom to this day is still the youngest First Lady the nation has seen, becoming the lady of the country when she married the bachelor President Grover Cleveland in 1886 at the age of 21 (Grover was nearly 50 years old).

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Afternoon / reception dress (sleeve detail). Lottie Barton, Baltimore, Maryland, c.1890, silk damask, silk taffeta, lace, silk twill, metal, silk satin, Maryland Historical Society, 78.111.1, Gift of the Children of Richard Folsom Cleveland (George Maxwell Cleveland, Margaret Folsom Cleveland, Thomas Grover Cleveland, Charlotte C. Look, Ann Cleveland Robertson, and Frances Cleveland Corcoran).

First Lady Frances Cleveland was young, well educated, and beautiful. The nation was in thrall of her early on. Cleveland biographer Annette Dunlap has highlighted how the bright and youthful First Lady in her low cut gowns recieved both national admiration and idolization as well as attacks on her character from groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, yet she continued to wear the clothes she wanted to.[1]

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Mrs. Grover Cleveland, facing right, George Prince, c.1886, photographic print, Courtesy of The Library of Congress, https://loc.gov/item/96525646/

A First Lady who’s time in the White House was split into two non-concurrent terms, and a partial first term at that, Frances Cleveland was First Lady during a time of subtle shifts in high fashion. The dresses in the collection of MdHS could date from her time during President Cleveland’s first term, the four years of President Harrison’s term, or the early years of President Cleveland’s second term. Further complicating the dating of the First Lady’s dresses, she was known to both alter and re-wear clothing from her considerable wardrobe more than other First Ladies.[2]

While the two Barton gowns in the collection of MdHS do not show signs of significant alteration for re-use, a third piece owned and worn by First Lady Cleveland, a spectacular red velvet evening jacket with metal and silk embroidered appliques, likely re-made for day wear as a wrapper, created by an unknown maker reinforces Ms. Dunlap’s findings.

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Evening coat (front and back). Unknown. c.1880-1900, silk velvet, silk floss, metallic thread, Maryland Historical Society, 78.111.3, Gift of the Children of Richard Folsom Cleveland (George Maxwell Cleveland, Margaret Folsom Cleveland, Thomas Grover Cleveland, Charlotte C. Look, Ann Cleveland Robertson, and Frances Cleveland Corcoran).

While President and First Lady Cleveland are mostly closely associated with the home states of New York and New Jersey, their eldest son, Richard Folsom Cleveland (b.1897-d.1974) eventually moved to Baltimore and was a lawyer with the firm Semmes, Bowen & Semmes. Former First Lady Cleveland passed away in Baltimore while visiting her son for his 50th birthday in 1947.[3] It was ultimately through Richard’s children that MdHS received the three First Lady’s garments. With that gift a multitude of stories can be told; those of their makers, their owner, a nation, and so many more.

 You can help us preserve pieces like First Lady Cleveland's clothing through our Adopt-A-Box program!  Check it out in the link below!

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Resources:


[1] “Frances Folsom Cleveland’s White House Wardrobe,” WHHA, accessed July 10, 2018, https://www.whitehousehistory.org/frances-folsom-clevelands-white-house-wardrobe; “Frances Cleveland Biography :: National First Ladies’ Library,” accessed July 10, 2018, http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=23.

[2] Ibid; Annette B. Dunlap, Frank: The Story of Frances Folsom Cleveland, America’s Youngest First Lady, Reprint edition (State University of New York Press, 2015).

[3] Ibid.