First Lady Harriet Lane (1857-1861)

     Have you ever wondered if you are a hopelessly frivolous person? Does it sometimes seem like you are oblivious to and perhaps even unappreciative of the abundance all around you? Do you ever feel like you need to spend more time giving back in some way and yet still feel pulled into every good shoe sale that comes along? I have a friend who recently took her three teenaged boys to South America to work in an orphanage for three weeks. It was a wonderful experience for all of them, but when she got back she called her beautician to cancel her hair appointment. “I just don’t think I can get my hair done any more now that I realize what a difference that amount of money can make for those orphans,” she explained to the beautician. My friend did eventually decide to start going back to her beautician. Her hair needed cutting and her beautician needed to make a living. But who among us hasn’t felt the kind of angst that privilege in the face of poverty can bring? In fact, if you are able to read this blog you are probably surrounded by more stuff than you know what to do with, even if you are worried about a recent overdraft on your checking account.

     Fashion certainly seems like fair game when it comes to cutting out of our lives extras that don’t really matter. I admit that frivolous is the word that comes most readily to mind when I view the latest offerings coming down the runway at the semi-annual Fashion Weeks from New York, London, Paris, and Milan. And yet, I wait for each new collection with eager anticipation. I coughed up cold hard cash for the ridiculously expensive book about Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. So how can I even pretend to identify with the “before” Andie from The Devil Wears Prada, you remember the one, the “smart fat girl” who felt that she was above the fashion nonsense floating all around her until she snorted at the wrong moment when Miranda Priestly was accessorizing the latest magazine clothing layout and received, courtesy of Miranda, her first true fashion education.

     Perhaps we are just fickle creatures at heart. But then I read about women who have achieved balance in their lives, and it gives me a renewed sense of hope. Such women, like Harriet Lane, remind me that fashion and grooming can be decidedly non-frivolous when they contribute to a life of solid accomplishment. Harriet Lane was the niece of James Buchanan, the sixteenth president of the United States.

James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States.  President Buchanan served during the period leading up to the Civil War, from 1857–1861.  (By George Peter Alexander Healy, 1859. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; http://americanhistory.si.edu/presidency/timeline/pres_era/3_676.html)

James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States.  President Buchanan served during the period leading up to the Civil War, from 1857–1861.  (By George Peter Alexander Healy, 1859. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; http://americanhistory.si.edu/presidency/timeline/pres_era/3_676.html)

  Born in Franklin, Pennsylvania in 1830, Harriet was orphaned at the age of eleven and became the ward of her favorite uncle. He saw to it that she was educated in excellent schools and, when he became Secretary of State, he began to introduce her into the fashionable circles in which he traveled. When her Uncle James became ambassador to the Court of St. James’s in London, he took her with him. She became a favorite of Queen Victoria, who referred to her as “dear Miss Lane.”    

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1854, about the time they befriended Harriet  (http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=16)

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1854, about the time they befriended Harriet  (http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=16)

By the time Uncle James was elected president in 1856, Harriet was 26 years old. And with her uncle being a bachelor, it was only natural that Harriet became his First Lady. It was a challenging time to be a First Lady for many reasons. Buchanan’s administration followed Franklin Pierce’s. Pierce’s wife Jane hated living in Washington. She mourned the loss of her only child and suffered from tuberculosis, and life in the White House was anything but exciting while she was First Lady. The general atmosphere in the country suffered as a result.

First Lady Jane Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce

First Lady Jane Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce

     Harriet recognized that society was important, and the Inaugural Ball held in March 1857 was intended as a clean break with the sadness of the Pierce administration. The ball offered a veritable gastronomic feast. The following varieties of food were offered: four hundred gallons of oysters, five hundred quarts of chicken salad, five hundred quarts of jellies, sixty saddles of mutton and four of venison, eight rounds of beef, seventy-five hams, one hundred and twenty five tongues, and three thousand dollars’ worth of wine. Harriet, in breaking with the ways of the Pierce administration, lowered the neckline on the gown that she wore to the Inaugural Ball by 2.5 inches. Women began to follow her example in their hair and manner of dress.

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First Lady Harriet Lane, niece of President Buchanan

First Lady Harriet Lane, niece of President Buchanan

     Quickly becoming a sensation, she was described as tall and willowy with violet eyes. She served as First Lady during the volatile build-up to the Civil War, when the frequent guests at the White House social functions were either barely speaking to or loudly hollering at each other. Harriet’s weekly formal dinner parties required all of her tact and she spent great effort at getting the seating arrangements just right. A French chef named Gautier served oysters, lobster, terrapin, wild turkey and partridge. So were her dinner parties frivolous? Or were they an important opportunity to help entrenched combatants relax together in a comfortable setting and look for some common ground? And Harriet was said to be as practical as she was pretty. While feeding her guests well, she still kept a close eye on the food bills.      

     During her uncle’s administration, Harriet had a conservatory built onto the White House. It quickly became known as Miss Lane’s Conservatory. Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper carried an article about it, which stated:

Here you may see orange and lemon trees loaded with fruit, rows of cactus plants of every size and shape, Camellia Japonicas covered with bloom, Spirea, Ardisia, Poinsettia; running vines . . .it affords a pleasant promenade and lounging place for visitors on public days, and the universal opinion seems to be that the new Conservatory is a most fitting and agreeable addition to the White House.

Harriet's Conservatory, built on the West end of the White House

Harriet's Conservatory, built on the West end of the White House

Again, was the conservatory frivolous? Or was it a wonderful way for the public to feel connected to their president and country? During the years leading up to 1860, which was a time of increasing division in Washington, the opportunity to enjoy Harriet’s conservatory offered a chance to feel unified, at least in the enjoyment of a beautiful and pleasant space.

     Harriet was also known for her advocacy work, especially with orphans and the mentally ill.  

     As I have read about Harriet, it is clear she took great care in her appearance and clothing. This quality seemed to work together with her other abilities. Rather than being frivolous and detracting from her important accomplishments, it enhanced them. It reminds me that fashion has its place. Our appearance is the first thing that communicates anything about us. As my mother always said, you only get one chance to make a first impression. And first impressions matter. Harriet Lane presented herself to Washington society and created a good first impression which she then used to bring people together in as many different ways as she could: politically through her dinners, socially through her conservatory, and financially through her advocacy work.

   Okay, and maybe fashion had one other important part to play in Harriet’s life. Let’s be honest here. When Harriet lowered the neckline on her Inaugural dress, well, that must have been just plain fun. And life doesn’t count for much if it isn’t occasionally fun, at least not in my book.

Harriet's Wedding Dress, 1866

Harriet's Wedding Dress, 1866

     So do I think it’s important to skip the occasional shoe sale and instead contribute to worthy cause like orphanages in South America? Absolutely. But now every time I visit my beautician, I think about Harriet and her neckline and I feel a lot better about myself.        

John Henry Brown, Harriet Lane Johnston, 1878, watercolor on ivory, 4 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of May S. Kennedy  (http://americanart.si.edu/visit/about/history/johnston/)

John Henry Brown, Harriet Lane Johnston, 1878, watercolor on ivory, 4 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of May S. Kennedy  (http://americanart.si.edu/visit/about/history/johnston/)