Dress


Daniel Webster, Brady Studio daguerreotype c. 1849
Theoretically New Yorkers knew there was a difference between outward appearance and the true self. In his diary Phillip Hone wrote a brief essay, “Dress,” in which he commented on the responsibility of older men and women to dress well: “An old house requires painting more than a new one.” But they also ought to dress appropriately, soberly, and not gaudily. He was scandalized by the refusal of his friend Daniel Webster to appear “in the only dress in which he should appear—the respectable and dignified suit of black.” Instead, Webster was fond of “tawdry,” multicolored clothes:
“I was much amused a day or two since meeting him in Wall Street, at high noon, in a bright blue Satin Vest, sprigged with gold flowers, a costume incongruous for Daniel Webster, as Ostrich feathers for a Sister of Charity, or a small Sword for a judge of Probates. There is a strange discrepancy between ‘the outward and visible form, and the inward and spiritual grace,’ the integuments and the intellect.”

Dell Upton, “Inventing the Metropolis: Civilization and Urbanity in Antebellum New York” from Art in the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861

One might be driven to think that the sour expression on Webster’s face in most paintings and photographs might be the result of the more restrained wardrobe he was forced into for decorum’s sake. This passage casts a new light on the old sourpuss.

Chris has suggested the topic of “scale” as fruitful. I agree, and no, I have not addressed it before. Brady makes for a fruitful leaping-off spot. The small daguerreotypes we associate with his early work are only a small part of his commercial venture. He also sold “Imperials,” larger than life-size portraits taken from daguerreotypes projected out on textured albumen paper, retouched carefully by painters in his employ.

I am somewhat resistant to viewing the aspect of the medium of photography marked by teams of technicians producing large scale works as “evolutionary,” or worse still, “revolutionary.” I could write much more on that (and might) reflecting on my experience of Avedon’s Portraits exhibition in the mid 1980s, and as counterpoint, the somewhat more guerilla tactics of Willie Middlebrook’s large scale works on long-roll paper. He is right to suggest that the reflective technologies also have a certain obligation of stewardship.

We pay a price for dressing-up much larger than the price for dressing-down.

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March 26, 2005 3:35 PM