The Fashionable Woman in 1900: The Story of Gwendolen King Armstrong As Seen Through Clothing, Photographs and Letters
Kingscote was home to four generations of the King family. Built between 1839 and 1841 by architect Richard Upjohn, Kingscote is a Gothic Revival-style villa and one of Newport's earliest summer cottages. Initially built for the George planter, George Noble Jones, the house was purchased by the retired China Trade merchant William Henry King in 1863. The Kings named it Kingscote and lived in the house until 1972, when it was bequeathed with all of its contents to The Preservation Society of Newport County. Today, the building is designated a National Historic Landmark.
Kingscote's rich family collections, ranging from fine and decorative arts, to more personal items such as clothing, letters and photographs, provide a window to another age, telling a very personal story, comprising a detailed portrait of a Newport lady.
Gwendolen King Armstrong (1876-1968), lived much of her very long life at Kingscote in Newport. An exhibition, organized by the Preservation Society in 2005, showcased a range of her Gilded Age clothing that was bequeathed, along with Kingscote, to the Preservation Society in 1972. With the generous financial support of the Cranston Foundation, fifteen King family costumes were stabilized and prepared for this exhibition.
The process of cataloging and conserving this collection of clothing revealed a remarkably complete story of turn of the 20th century life in Newport. Much of the clothing and accessories could be accurately dated to the years 1896-1905. This timeframe spanned an exciting period for Gwendolen, as it encompassed the whirl of social activity that was her coming out, engagement, wedding, honeymoon and the early years of her married life.
The story is enhanced by information gleaned from poignant family correspondence and an extensive collection of family photographs. Kingscote and its collection comprise a very complete time capsule. Vintage photographs depict Gwendolen as she looked and dressed at the turn of the 20th century, and her writings offer her own commentary about dress and fashion. Many of the 383 letters that are part of the King collection were written between Gwendolen and her mother, Ella Rives King. The correspondence provides the sometimes contrary perspective of two women of different generations who lived through the Gilded Age.
Collectively, these documentary sources are very revealing. While they answer many specific questions about Gwendolen's life, they can also serve as supporting evidence in beginning to explore larger questions and issues regarding late 19th and early 20th -century life. Does clothing serve as a window that allows us to see through into the larger social, cultural, economic and political issues of an era - If so, what does this clothing of the Gilded Age tell us about the period?
In general, America's Gilded Age, and particularly its fashions, has been associated with economist Thorstein Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption. Veblen's interpretation of Gilded Age dress has caused a consistent and stereotypical perception. Women's dress of the period is thought to have been an overly opulent vehicle by which women were able to showcase the wealth and status of their husband or family. King family documents suggest otherwise. The Gilded Age is revealed by the Kings as a complex, multi-layered and transitory period of American history. Their writings advance the notion that during the Gilded Age women had complex and varied motives for selecting particular styles. By the close of the 19th century women had begun to modify their dress in order to facilitate and accept changing societal roles. By 1900, it is apparent that young women of the leisure class such as Gwendolen were no longer satisfied dressing with the same constrained formality as woman did a generation earlier. This study of the King family, most specifically Gwendolen and her clothing, reveals the Gilded Age as a vital period in American history that served as a bridge linking the Victorian past to the emerging modern era.