Sunday, June 24, 2012

Farmers and Artisans in Red Undershirts

During a recent visit to the New-York Historical Society's Making American Taste paintings exhibition, Nicole and I noticed an interesting detail in some of the paintings. Three of the images included figures wearing loose white shirts with sleeves rolled up revealing red undershirts.

Francis W. Edmonds, Grinding the Scythe, 1856

Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, The Latest News, 1862

Detail, Louis Lang, Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment, N.Y.S.M., from the Seat of War, N.Y., 1862

The middle decades of the nineteenth century produced loads of fascinating "genre" (everyday life) paintings (as well as artists who favored using their full names, like George Caleb BinghamWilliam Sidney Mount, and Richard Caton Woodville), and I feel like I've seen the red-sleeved look somewhere before. But I've yet to find any other such paintings. The fashion appeared rarely in print, as in an 1857 notice from the Canton neighborhood of Baltimore. The unfortunate drowned man was clearly a laborer, based on his layered work clothes.

The Sun, July 21, 1857

It's hard to say if this pattern represents some sort of broader fashion trend or a more idiosyncratic practice. But, lest we think this interesting look was solely a painter's invention, I'll end with an incredible circa 1850 daguerreotype of two blacksmiths with tinted red sleeves. Don't miss the pleat-front shirt of the smith facing the viewer and the striped braces of the one facing away. While also an artistic view (with tinting not necessarily corresponding to true colors), this photograph is another example of a forgotten mid-nineteenth century working man's fashion.

Foresta and Wood, Secrets of the Dark Chamber, 73

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