Becoming Louisa May Alcott

A few posts back we were discussing fashion as it related to Eight Cousins, chapter 5. In my attempts to find out more, I posted on the Louisa May Alcott Society listserv to see if any of the scholars there could share some information. As a result, I met Frances Miriam Reed. She has portrayed Louisa for different library and school groups and thus, is intimately acquainted with how Louisa dressed.

I asked her about the dress she wears for her performances and she wrote:

Frances Miriam Reed as Louisa May Alcott

“Since I was not wearing corsets, the dress was not uncomfortable, but it is structured with boning. It is of brown silk, but the many petticoats – even one heavy petticoat – underneath it made the costume heavy but not unhappily so. I think I read somewhere that women’s clothes in the nineteenth century could weigh as much as forty pounds.

And it takes a long time to put on. for after the petticoat(s), there is the underskirt and the overskirt, the sash, the neckpiece, the blouse, the bodice, and then the vest of brown velvet with many tiny buttons.

The study of fashion and the psychology behind it is fascinating and how this ties in with LMA and who she was  – for me – points to the many conflicts that formed and dictated her life and her art.”

How does one become Louisa?

Being curious about how one becomes Louisa, I invited Dr. Reed to write about her experiences portraying Louisa, and other historically important women:

“Before I began work on my Louisa May Alcott show “Living Little Women,” I had developed a number of other performances, including one on Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In that instance, I was not going to approximate with padding or otherwise 250 pounds of body. But it had become clear to me in my work with teaching English and studying literature that language is idiosyncratic and that the essence of the individual is in the language chosen by the individual. To attempt to convey the essence of an individual without using her own words misses the entire point of a re-creation. The essence of who you are as performer will necessarily color your portrayal, but by starting with the actual words of the individual to be portrayed, your coloration will be muted and hopefully blended in such a manner that will sharpen your portrayal.

Louisa in her own words

Fortunately, Louisa May Alcott left us many, many words that display her essence and that peer through the layers of Victorian sensibilities that engulfed her. Thus, I began the composing of my script by – naturally enough – by reading, reading, reading everything LMA wrote, most particularly her diaries and letters. And then I stitched together those statements that made the point in her life that I wanted to bring to life on the stage. I wrote in my own words the bridging statements that gave coherence to my presentation, but as much as possible, I let LMA speak for herself.

Researching and recreating the costume

Ideally, a traveling solo artist will want as little luggage as possible, but costume, above all, is so important to conveying the historical ambiance and geist of character and period that costume, as authentic as possible, had to be had. In that regard, my award winning designer, Sylvia Moss, then of UCLA Theatre Department, and I did a great deal of research, and I was fortunate in knowing someone who shared my passion for this approach. Using a photo of LMA , she created a beautiful and authentic dress that in itself was an important part of the show.

The chair that Dr. Reed uses

Simple props

In that connection, at least one piece of furniture from the period was important for me to have on stage. I did not want LMA to become hostage to the set, but I always traveled with a chair that said 1870s or thereabouts and that set the tone of the era.

Making good use of Louisa’s humor

Beyond drama, I used LMA humor, which is what will hold audience attention above all, and I used those incidents in her life that, from my point of view, most expressed who she was. For some time, my performance was missing something; I could feel it. But when I integrated the Boston Brahman accent, into her words and into the script, I found her voice, and my performance took on an inner life and came into its artistic merit. Such a discovery is part of the inner path that the artist must travel, but when it feels right, it is right. It works on stage, and performer and individual being portrayed connect with the audience in a wonderful synergy.”

My thanks to Dr. Reed for sharing her experiences. It was obvious to me through our correspondence how much joy she derides from portraying Louisa. Visit her website at to find out how you can invite her to your library or school group.


A darker side of fashion in Louisa May Alcott’s time

With regards to our discussion of Eight Cousins, a reader asked some questions about fashion in reference to chapter 5, “A Belt and a Box.”

The question was, “Do you know of any information about what Louisa and her mother taught about fashionable clothing? Do you know if she was reading doctors or feminists who were revealing the deleterious nature of fashion?” (thanks to Sarah).

Did Louisa read up on fashion? Apparently …

I belong to the Louisa May Alcott Society and posted the question to members. Melissa M. Pennell, Ph.D., professor of English at UMass Lowell responded with the following:

“There was lots being discussed about women and dress reform in New England – you might like to consult some of the writing done by Mary Livermore and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps*, as well as Amelia Bloomer. LMA and her mother were certainly aware of the work of these writers.  There are also a number of items that appear in the “medical” and advice literature of the time.”

From left to right, Mary Lvermore, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and Amelia Bloomer

I haven’t had the opportunity to look up the opinions of these writers on fashion, perhaps some of you have. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Interesting tidbit

*Elizabeth Stuart Phelps was an author, writing for children as well as adults. I found this line from an online biography rather interesting (bold emphasis is mine):

“Phelps also wrote the four-volume Gypsy Brenton series, her best-known juvenile work. One commentary notes that Gypsy, a more tomboyish figure than the characters in the Tiny series, “set the pattern for the engaging tomboy heroine [later popularized by Alcott’s Little WomenSusan Coolidge’s What Katy Did, and subsequent characters such as Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn and Wilder’s Laura Ingalls] and demonstrated the popularity of the tomboy’s story.” (click here to read the entire bio).

Here are a couple of the books:

Gypsy Breynton by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
Gypsy’s Cousin Joy by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Outright dangers

Sarah, the poser of the question, posted something on her blog,  Frigate to Utopia, developing the comment she made earlier about the role of Seventh Day Adventist Ellen White. There are wonderful pictures and descriptions of fashions of the time, I highly recommend you read this post! Talk about suffering for beauty – strikes me as rather sadistic on the part of men (and masochistic for women) to adhere to these fashion trends. The corset was pretty dangerous but I wonder – is the 5″ heel any less dangerous?

Hidden Dangers

On another fashion tangent, one of my favorite blogs, the Two Nerdy History Girls blog, ran a post about a hidden danger that rose up due to the mass-production of clothing. Here’s a teaser:

Godey's Fashions for January, 1866

By the middle of the 19th c., more and more clothing was being mass-produced rather than individually hand-sewn for the wearer, with technological advances such as sewing machines and high-speed textile looms bringing the industrial revolution to fashion . . . In 1856, an eighteen-year-old chemistry student named William Henry Perkin (1838-1907) accidentally created the first aniline dye, a vivid purple dubbed mauveine, and from this sprang a whole spectrum of colors . . . There was only one catch: that lovely, brilliant shade of Perkin green (one of the most popular of the new colors) contained arsenic . . .

Click here to read the entire post.

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What was the 19th century equivalent of the Ladies Home Journal?

I’m in trouble. There’s an antique store right down the street from my house and already I’ve found two big thick books, one dated 1866 and the other, 1878. The bug of collecting antique books is beginning to take hold!

As I read more and more about Louisa May Alcott, her family and her works, I have become increasingly interested in what made the typical 19th century woman tick.

Of course, there are many versions of “typical.” You have:

  • wealthy women of the Gilded Age (much like the Shaws of
    An Old-Fashioned Girl)
  • poorer women (like Polly of An Old-Fashioned Girl and the March sisters of Little Women)
  • immigrant women
  • black women
  • European women . . .

It’s hard to nail down the “typical” woman. Yet there were publications that depicted the ideal woman and taught women how to emulate that model. And there were how-to books on how to achieve perfect womanhood.

I found two very different books which tackled this issue. They are Godey’s Lady’s Book for 1866 and The Mirror of Womanhood (second edition 1878) by Rev. Bernard O’Reilly. One book addresses the image of the perfect woman through fashion and culture while the other through religion (in this case, Catholicism).

As I deepen my knowledge of Louisa’s work and life, I look forward also to deepening my understanding of 19th century women.

Godey’s Lady’s Book 1866

Godey’s Lady’s Book was probably the Ladies Home Journal of its day (or perhaps all those types of magazines combined). Wikipedia describes it in this way:

The magazine was published by Louis A. Godey from Philadelphia for 48 years (1830–1878). Godey intended to take advantage of the popularity of gift books, many of which were marketed specifically to women.[1] Each issue contained poetry, articles, and engravings created by prominent writers and other artists of the time. Sarah Josepha Hale (author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) was its editor from 1837 until 1877 and only published original, American manuscripts. Although the magazine contained work by both men and women, Hale published three special issues which only included work done by women.

At its zenith, the publication boasted having 150,000 subscribers. It was the most popular journal in its day, even at a pricey $3 per issue.

Godey’s Lady’s Book refused to get involved in any way with politics and thus made the mistake of totally ignoring the Civil War. This decision cost the journal one third of its subscribers.

Godey's Fashions for January, 1866

Gorgeous fashions

What immediately struck me as I flipped through the book was the beauty of the illustrations – gorgeous full color foldout fashion plates protected by onion skin paper, and detailed black and white engravings. It is a treasure trove of lovely artwork with exquisite detail, showing off the beauty of the fashions of the day. It made me wonder what our legacy will be, what with emails, photographs and videos replacing these carefully drawn illustrations.

It will be interesting to thumb through the various articles, poems and music that Godey’s offers. At some point Louisa and her sisters probably thumbed through these journals, desiring the dresses, bonnets and jackets (we know that Meg desired finery). Louisa made no secret of the fact that she appreciated fashion, often window shopping when she was in Boston.

I think of Louisa using Godey’s to describe the fashions worn by the Shaws and all the ladies of privilege in An Old-Fashioned Girl.

The Mirror of True Womanhood gilded cover

The Mirror of True Womanhood

I often read that Beth in Little Women was the quintessential 19th century Victorian woman, a model of moral perfection. Amy, of course, worked so hard at becoming a true lady, exhibiting grace, taste and little kindnesses towards others.

The Mirror of True Womanhood - beginning of the Table of Contents

Religious themes

This made me want to find out more about what made the perfect woman. It was with that thought that I picked up The Mirror of True Womanhood, published in 1878. I didn’t realize at the time when I purchased it that it was actually geared towards Irish Catholic women and therefore would have a lot of religious overtones (of which I am familiar with, being Catholic).

Hard to be different

But undoubtedly there are universal themes in this book that would apply to the idea of perfect womanhood, the kind that Beth and Amy epitomized. Louisa exhibited ambivalence towards this model, especially in the character of Jo March. She herself grappled much with being a working spinster, sometimes reveling in the independence, while at other times feeling left out and lonely.

Models from the past, and present

At any rate, reading sources from the day about what makes the perfect woman should prove interesting. I shall keep in mind what today’s magazines and media offer as images of the perfect woman. While women have certainly come a long way from the 19th century, I have a feeling I will find many similarities with regards to attitudes about fashion and appearance. We shall see.

In the meantime, enjoy the slide show of the fashion plates and contents of these books.

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