Ida Saxton McKinley Had a Penchant for Aqua, Standing Collars, Tucked Chiffon, Lace, Velvet Ribbon, Paillettes…and Monkey Fur

Ida Saxton McKinley may have struggled with poor health, the loss of her two daughters when they were young children, and the assassination of her husband, but she spent her days in exquisite outfits that must have lifted her spirits.

The other day, I traveled to Canton for an appointment at the William McKinley Presidential Library & Museum to see the garments that the museum is working to restore in a long-term preservation project. Curator Kim Kenney and Kathy, a volunteer at the museum, showed me 20 garments that belonged to the First Lady. According to Kim, the capelets, everyday dresses, and formal attire that I saw all date from the 1890s.

During the two hours that I spent in one of the museum’s storage areas, Kim and Kathy pulled stacks of large archival boxes from the shelves. As they opened each box, my appreciation grew for the exquisite workmanship and beautiful details that were apparent on each garment.

Working with sheets of descriptive text prepared by a McKinley Museum volunteer about ten years ago, I noted construction details, decorative embellishments, fabric condition, and other defining attributes of the dresses. I also marveled at the obvious taste and distinctive style that Mrs. McKinley possessed when it came to fashion.

Several of the bodices indicate that Mrs. McKinley’s signature style included a standing collar and an insert of chiffon, often trimmed with lace or pintucks, which complemented and softened the ensemble. In keeping with the fashion of the time, her long skirts had slight trains, underskirts with pleated ruffles, small padded fabric bustles, and even generous interior pockets. Embellishments gave each outfit a beautiful finishing touch. Those embellishments that adorn Mrs. McKinley’s dresses are the focus of the article I’m writing for a 2013 issue of PieceWork magazine.

Here’s a detail from a dress made of embroidered beige cotton and beige net. Narrow black ribbon edges the lace-trimmed stand-up collar of the bodice and the skirt hem. The skirt is accented with vertical panels of matching lace and is finished with a knife-pleated ruffle at the hem.

This is a detail of applied lace trim from the skirt of a pale yellow floral silk damask dress.

Small hand-applied black velvet circles and dots decorate the bodice and extend down the front of the skirt of a beige silk taffeta dress.

Battenberg lace, narrow bands of embroidered brown and ivory velvet ribbons, fagoting and tiny gold beads embellish a sapphire blue velvet gown.

The bodice of a patterned pale grey and pale blue watered silk dress is accented with bows and tabs of narrow black velvet ribbon, as well as tiny paillettes of cut steel.

One black plush capelet believed to have belonged to Mrs. McKinley is edged in black monkey fur and adorned with black braid in a decorative pattern, on which small sequins have been sewn.

Aqua must have been a favorite color of Mrs. McKinley’s. One patterned black net and beige silk faille bodice has a band of aqua silk at the wrists. A beige silk taffeta dress is accented at the waist with a matching broad, fringed sash backed with aqua silk. Pale aqua chiffon is used at the wrists and down the front of both the bodice and the skirt of a woven iris patterned silk damask dress.

That same dress also has heavily embellished designs made of beads, sequins, paste jewels and embroidery.

A  distinctive aqua silk faille dress features a low loop pile fabric and buttons under the left arm. A beige and aqua leaf-embroidered band trims the neck, sleeves and waist of the bodice. The skirt front features a panel of shirred aqua silk, while the hem of the skirt is edged with a band of box-pleated aqua satin.

Embroidered tapes inside the waists of several of the dresses reveal the names of dressmakers that Mrs. McKinley favored. In addition to Mrs. Dunstan, a dressmaker who was located at 6 East 30th Street in New York City, Mrs. McKinley patronized Mme. George of Baltimore and Paris, as well as Rock & Torpey, once found at 13 West 29th Street in New York City.

Since her nephew worked at Marshall Field’s, Mrs. McKinley is believed to have taken the train to Chicago for shopping trips. Marshall Field representatives brought clothes to her hotel, where she would make her selections. This is a detail of one of those dresses.

If only those dressmakers were still here today to lend a hand in restoring and preserving the dresses. Some beads are falling off trims and parts of embroidery are unraveling. Fragile silk fabrics are faded, split, or stained. One overskirt is torn; white paraffin spills mar the back of another skirt. Remade linings and missing bodice inserts pose other challenges. Although the museum’s restoration project will be a costly and tedious one, preserving these historic artifacts offers undeniable benefits.

Before I left, Kim showed me some recent donations of manuscripts and printed material that pertain to the McKinleys, such as an admittance card to President McKinley’s funeral service at the Capitol and a bound collection of condolence letters which Mrs. McKinley received. This page of the program from the June 1896 Republican National Convention in St. Louis shows not only how attendees marked votes by hand in their programs, but also how McKinley had a clear lead for the presidential nomination.

The other PieceWork article I’m writing is about Mrs. McKinley’s fondness for crochet.  Kim also pointed out the silk bag that Mrs. McKinley used to hold her yarn and crochet hook. Inside the 9” by 14” bag, there is a photograph of her husband, which was most likely taken in the 1880s, while he was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.

And here’s one of the estimated 4,000 pairs of bedroom slippers that Mrs. McKinley crocheted. Sometimes, she gave them to friends, veterans and orphans; other times, she sold them at auctions to raise money for charity. The slippers feature crocheted wool tops and bound cork soles, onto which the wool tops were sewn by hand. Sometimes, the slippers include ribbons and elastic drawstrings.

Kim and Kathy made my field trip to Canton such an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.  If you’d like to visit the William McKinley Presidential Library & Museum, click here to find out more about this fine cultural resource.

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