Inaugerating change: the ball gown of Fanny Yarborough Bickett, at the North Carolina Museum of History

From the mid-nineteenth century on, progressive-minded women demanded dress reform. Oblivious to their concerns, arbiters of Victorian fashions continued to encase women’s torsos in constricting corsets, and to encumber them with voluminous floor-length skirts, held out on hoops, or, later, puffed out behind on steel and whalebone bustles. Even as the twentieth century dawned, the fashionable woman’s figure was forced into an exaggerated and attenuated S-curve that mimicked the sinuous shapes found in art nouveau design, her back over-arched, hips slouched, waist pinched, and her bosom thrust forward. This look was succeeded by the aptly-named hobble skirt.

But when Europe entered the First World War, and fashionable ladies joined volunteer war-efforts, they found their corsets and long skirts hindered them too much. Fashion followed necessity: hemlines rose, bodices loosened, and the waistline was raised, granting women’s bodies much greater freedom of movement. The ankle-tight hobble skirt was replaced by wide skirts, sometimes supported by light-weight crinolines, but loose enough to allow women to make strides.


Gown worn by Frances Yarborough Bickett the the inaugural ball for her husband, Governor Thomas Walter Bickett of North Carolina, in 1917
Silk satin and chiffon with beaded embroidery
Collections of the North Carolina Museum of History

Not all ladies who adopted the new fashions supported expanded roles for women. Readers who follow the PBS series “Downton Abbey” will have seen actresses dressed in gowns styled very like this one, regardless of whether their characters held conservative or progressive cultural values. Few women refused to altogether follow fashion trends.

As it happens, the owner of this particular gown, Frances (“Fanny”) Yarborough Bickett, was an ardent advocate of women’s rights. Married to Thomas Walter Bickett, governor of North Carolina from 1917–1922, Fanny wore this gown to her husband’s first inaugural ball. Educated at the Universities of Chicago and North Carolina, Fanny Bickett was a suffragist, a member of the North Carolina Federation of Colored Women, and served on the UDC.[1]

She was not a radical feminist, and recommended women to exert their influence through their traditional means of moral suasion, for example urging both white and black women to strike at Jim Crow laws by exercising their feminine moral authority over their menfolk. But she was by no means averse to women exercising political power directly, and after her husband’s death, she became the Welfare Superintendent for Wake County, North Carolina.[2]

She showed herself to be thoroughly modern, also, in her choice of color for her ball gown. In the nineteenth-century, black was the color of mourning, and was rarely worn on festive occasions. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, women were starting to wear black gown for evening wear in Paris, that center of the fashion world, but elsewhere it remained unusual and somewhat daring. It was also a color associated with widowhood, and ergo with sexual experience. When expatriate American artist John Singer Sargent painted a young and lovely woman in a revealing all-black evening gown, his 1884 portrait of “Madame X” created a scandalous sensation, even in Paris. It was not until the mid-1920s that French designer Coco Chanel declared black to be the most appropriate color for all occasions. Fanny Bickett’s 1917 ball gown is not entirely black; the sleeves and neckline are ornamented with pink and blue beads in an abstract floral design, and the dickey worn under the chiffon bodice is blue.

Fanny Bickett’s inaugural ball gown is situated at a moment of transformation, signaling greater freedom for women in work, in politics and in bodily comfort. For the American south as well, the limited but significant role Governor Bickett’s wife played North Carolina politics furthered the slow erosion of racial, as well as gender, injustices.

[1] Donald G. Mathews and Jane Sherron DeHart, Sex, Gender and the Politics of the ERA: A State and the Nation (NY: Oxford University Press, 1990),23; Anastacia Sims, The Power of Femininity in the New South: Women’s Organizations and Politics in North Carolina, 1880 –1930 (University of South Carolina, 1979), 149-150.

[2] Sims, The Power of Femininity, 150; Clyde Roark Hoey and David Leroy Corbitt, Addresses, Letters and Papers of C.R. Hoey, Governor of North Carolina, Part I (Kessinger Publishing, 2005), 308

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2 Responses to Inaugerating change: the ball gown of Fanny Yarborough Bickett, at the North Carolina Museum of History RSS Comments (RSS)

  1. Kerstin Howarth says:

    I’m wondering what it would feel like to wear a dress like this.

    • Hillary Murtha says:

      That’s the significant part, Kerstin. I suspect that it wouldn’t feel very different from wearing an evening gown you might find in a store today – loose waist, no corset, no steel hoops, just a lightweight crinoline supporting the skirts. VERY different from wearing a nineteenth-century gown – I was just looking at some in the MET’s exhibit on Impressionism and Fashion, and wondering how even the slimmest of women could breathe with their waists cinched like that. Some 19th c. fashionable ladies even had their bottom ribs surgically removed so they could lace their corsets tighter. This dress is about being comfortable AND gorgeously dressed, too!

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