4 IN THE LATE 1850s, Washington society reached such
heights of extravagance that residents compared it to the
court at Versailles or the reign of Louis Napoleon. What
ever historical analogy applied, new arrivals, such as Mary Cunningham Logan, the wife of an Illinois congressman, were taken aback by
the “ostentatious display.” Hostesses vied with each other for creative
ways to amuse their guests, one of them installing movable panels in
the ceiling over the dinner table and showering her guests with flower
petals between courses. Fashion became just as ostentatious. Varina
Davis employed a dressmaker and had an extensive wardrobe of
conservative taste—conservative for the late 1850s. She attended a
White House event wearing a black lace bertha and a golden silk
gown trimmed with black velvet and small lemon-colored bows. She
continued her high-profile social life, dining one evening with Senator John Bell, the Tennessean who would run for President in i860,
and the Baroness de Stoeckel, the American-born wife of the Russian
envoy. She told Jane Pierce in 1858 that she had never seen anything
like the hectic round of parties, breakfasts, oratorios, matinees, and
riding parties, and that it would take the pen of Laurence Sterne or
Jonathan Swift to portray the turbulence of society, the new faces,
new fashions, and competition for status.1
In this environment, Davis stood out for her erudition and her
bracing wit. The word that many residents of Washington associated
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Book title: First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War.
Contributors: Joan E. Cashin - Author.
Publisher: Belknap Press.
Place of publication: Cambridge, MA.
Publication year: 2006.
Page number: 80.
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