by Susan Harlan
In 1875, R.J. Reynolds founded his tobacco company in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and in 1905, at age 55, he married 25-year-old Mary Katharine Smith in her nearby hometown of Mount Airy, where the conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker had been buried several decades earlier. The ceremony was held in the parlor of her parents’ home, which Reynolds had filled with fresh flowers. It was a fairly secret and small affair.
Reynolds had spent his life as a bachelor. Katharine was his first cousin once-removed, a determined and independent woman who, as an elite white woman, had benefited from a good education. According to Emma Lewis Speight, Katharine’s roommate at the North Carolina State Normal and Industrial College (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro), Katharine had dreamed of marrying rich, traveling to Europe on a lavish honeymoon trip, and owning a great estate. Things were going well for her.
But building a country estate is a project. Katharine made 27 separate land acquisitions over 13 years, and when the house was completed in 1917 after five years of work, it included a model farm, village and gardens spread over 1,000 acres. The Reynolds moved in just in time for Christmas and settled into a life of work and entertaining, business and luxury.
Today, the estate houses a museum of American art, as well as a collection of clothing, accessories, toys, and other items belonging to members of the Reynolds family and their spouses. This collection, which opened to the public in 1973, represents purchases from the 1880s through the 1960s and is located in the attic, where visitors can view the pipes of the home’s Aeolian organ.
Katharine’s wedding dress is in this collection. And it is navy blue.
Usually, the dress is on display, but it has recently been cleaned and restored, so for now, its components reside in several large boxes in a storage closet – the skirt, jacket, and blouse in separate boxes, each garment stuffed with tissue paper, like a ghostly and fragmented human form.
Former Reynolda House Curator of Costumes Ruth Mullen notes that the local newspaper reported that Katharine wore “a beautiful and becoming tailor-made” suit of navy blue wool, and that, “The waist was of navy blue chiffon over white silk trimmed with real lace.” She also donned a hat of beaver, a material known for both style and resilience in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, Rebecca Mead outlines the history of the iconic white wedding dress, the “costume in which a bride makes her breathtaking appearance before her husband-to-be, as utterly transformed from her day-to-day self”:
White was worn by young women as a marker of maidenhood as early as the sixteenth century, but was not always the preferred choice for brides – the poorer of whom, for centuries, would most likely be married in whatever they owned that was the newest and cleanest, while the wealthy opted for rich brocades and silks. By the 1830s and 1840s, white had become a coveted choice for brides of higher social position: it signified not just purity but wealth, since white was an expensive color to keep clean … By the 1920s and 1930s, the long, white silk gown had been established as the fashion among those who could afford it, and a burgeoning wedding-dress industry was emerging.
Mead notes that Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in white, but that in the nineteenth century a less affluent English woman might opt to wear a dark dress for her wedding, to which she could add a white collar to signify her transformation from maiden to bride. Katharine does not seem to have been invested in the performance of class that white wedding dresses increasingly represented on both sides of the Atlantic. Her navy dress was a departure from the normative practices of the class into which she was marrying.
But a white wedding dress would not have been a practical choice for her. The Mount Airy News reported that immediately after the ceremony, the Reynolds took a train to Greensboro and then boarded another train to New York City, where the Baltic awaited them, an ocean liner owned by the White Star Line that would late commission the Titanic. They landed in Liverpool, traveled to London, and began a tour of almost two dozen of Europe’s great cities.
So Katharine was dressing for a trip. Her navy dress was not simply a wedding dress; it was a garment in which she could travel. As Mead reminds us, white is not an easy color to keep clean. This was part of its allure, but it was also a limitation.
Perhaps Katharine could have worn white and changed. But she didn’t. In one sense, this was a practical choice, but it was also a performance. Her navy dress was a sign that she could afford more than a white gown: she could afford Europe in the form of the “Grand Tour,” a required undertaking from the nineteenth century for wealthy Americans. The Grand Tour rendered the traveler cultured. It was a kind of “finishing.”
Her dress was a sign of privilege, but not the sign of privilege one might have expected. Navy blue signified not her pristine and protected removal from the world, as white would have, but her status as a traveler. It stood for a geographic mobility that mirrored her social mobility. Katharine’s ability to travel underscored her social position. The Grand Tour was a sign of the elite position she would claim on their return.
Susan Harlan is an English professor at Wake Forest University, where she specializes in Shakespeare and Renaissance literature. Her essays have appeared in venues such as The Toast, Literary Mothers, The Awl, The American Guide, Public Books, The Manifest-Station, The Feminist Wire and Skirt!, and she has a monthly column for Nowhere magazine entitled “The Nostalgic Traveler.” Read her previous pieces in Deep South here.
Photo credits, from top:Katharine Reynolds at home; construction of Reynolda House, c. 1916; the blue wedding dress; Katharine’s daughter Nancy Reynolds and Pete Ballard, curator of the Costume Collection, in 1973; the ocean liner Baltic. All photos courtesy of Reynolda House Museum of American Art.