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Frances Cleveland and the Bustle

It was a hot, slow, lazy week of July 4, 1887, in Washington, DC, and a couple of newspapermen (and they all were, with the tiniest of exceptions, newspapermen), were up to mischief in the newsroom. “What can we write about?” they mused, pondering the fact that the president and his young, extremely attractive wife were at their farm, Oak View, located out the Tenallytown Road. Congress was gone, and anyone who had anywhere else they could be besides hot, swampy Washington, was nowhere to be found.

“I know!” one very enterprising reporter exclaimed. “Mrs. Cleveland is such great copy! We’ll write a story about her….We’ll say that she’s given up the bustle!”

And so, on July 5th, the nation’s newspapers were abuzz with word out of Washington that the twenty-two year old wife of fifty-year old President Grover Cleveland had set all Washington society aflutter because she had abandoned the bustle. The first lady had driven her buggy from the farm to the White House to meet with friends, so the papers reported, and they were all agog at her “bustle-less” attire. The papers concluded that the fashionable Mrs. Cleveland, who had been the nation’s style-setter since marrying the President thirteen months earlier, on June 2, 1886, would lead all women to abandon the bustle.

As a first-time biographer, and having yet to learn that news can easily be exaggerated, I reported the bustle incident with serious fact in my biography of Mrs. Cleveland. Years later, having learned much more about the challenges of research, and having begun to study first ladies’ fashions, I think the Frances Cleveland and the bustle story is still one worthy of repeating – albeit tongue-in-cheek and with a little more background added to it.

If, indeed, White House visitors found Mrs. Cleveland without a bustle, they may, in fact, have found her wearing a dress with a reduced bustle. The undergarment, which had been more or less a mainstay of women’s fashion since the 1870s, underwent a transformation in the latter part of the 1880s and was reduced in size. By the early 1890s, it disappeared completely from women’s styles as clothing adapted to the more active and streamlined “Gibson Girl” model.

Parisian couturier Charles Frederick Worth is credited with inventing the bustle. His goal had been to eliminate crinolines, the hooped undergarments that women wore to widen their skirts. Bustles in the 1870s were large and created and “S”-shaped figure, thrusting the bustline forward and the hips backward.  In the 1880s, the bustle was rigid with a folding frame that was believed to support the back and improve women’s health. The bustle was also slowly abandoned as dresses moved from two pieces – a separate bodice and a skirt – to a design known as the princess line, a design attributed to Worth. A “princess dress” was a one-piece dress cut without a waist seam. With such a design, a smaller bustle would have been appropriate.

So, how did the bustle story with Frances Cleveland finally end? According to news reports, she and a close friend went shopping at Washington’s Woodward & Lothrop’s Department Store in September (1887). When the First Lady asked to be shown a bustle, the sales clerk replied: “Why, Mrs. Cleveland, ever since word got out that you had abandoned the bustle, nobody has bought one. We’ve moved them all to the basement! But,” said the enterprising clerk, “if you would like to see one, I’d be happy to go down there and get them for you.”

Frances supposedly turned to her companion and said, “Well, if they say I’ve quit wearing the bustle, then I guess that’s what I need to do.”

Frances Cleveland in 1886 with gown and bustle.
Frances Cleveland in 1886 with gown and bustle.

Happy 150th, Frank!

Frances Cleveland as a White House newlywed.
Frances Cleveland as a White House newlywed.

One hundred fifty years ago today, Frances Clara Folsom was born in Buffalo, New York. Her parents were Oscar and Emma Harmon Folsom, two people off the farm looking to be successful in the city. Oscar’s close friend and one-time law partner, Grover Cleveland, bought “Frank,” as she became known, her first baby carriage. When she was old enough to talk, he became “Uncle Cleve.”

Cleveland remained a confirmed bachelor while rumors swirled about Folsom’s infidelity. Cleveland’s sister supposedly once asked him if he ever planned to marry. “I’m waiting for my sweetheart to grow up,” he told his sister.

Frank did not have an easy early life. Her father died two days after her 11th birthday. He was not the best of financial managers, and his desk was littered with IOUs. Some of them were written to his former law partner. Cleveland stepped in as executor of his late friend’s estate, and kept Emma and Frank out of poverty.

Mother and daughter moved around, living with different family members, including a time in Jackson, Michigan. But Buffalo was home, and that is where they returned. After some tough high school years and a decision to drop out, Cleveland arranged for Frank to enter Wells College in Aurora, New York – a few hours’ train ride from Buffalo. By then, “Uncle Cleve” was governor of New York, and he had some clout with the college’s founder, Henry Wells, one of the two partners in the stagecoach firm of Wells-Fargo.

Frank thrived at Wells, and she was an “A” student. Cleveland arranged for a special rail car and rail siding to bring him from the Governor’s Mansion, in Albany, to Aurora to visit Frank. When he ran for president in 1884, Frank accompanied him on some of his trips around the state.

In the summer following her 1885 graduation from Wells, Cleveland proposed. Frank accepted. All was secret. The rumors swirled that the bachelor president had a sweetheart, and many thought it was Emma. Frank was dismissed by Washington insiders as a mere “schoolgirl.”

That schoolgirl captured the hearts and minds of the American public on Decoration Day, May, 31, 1886, when she waved her handkerchief at her fiance from a hotel room in New York City as she watched him pass by in the parade below. The American public couldn’t get enough of her. Two days later, she arrived at the White House at 6:30 a.m., on June 2, 1886, for her wedding that night in the Louis C. Tiffany-designed Blue Room.

With only newspaper pencil sketches, telegraph, and word-of-mouth, Frances Folsom Cleveland became the nation’s newest star. Women copied her hairstyles and her clothing. Church members wanted to drink from the same cup she had taken communion wine from. Working women lined up by the thousands to shake her hand at the special Saturday White House receptions Frank organized on their behalf. They loved her so much, they walked to the end of the line and waited another hour just to shake her hand again.

Frank was not as popular in the second Cleveland Administration (1893-1897) as she had been in the first. She was now focused on motherhood, entering the White House with daughter Ruth, and then bearing Cleveland two more daughters during their time there. Esther, the second daughter, is the only presidential child to be born in the White House, in 1893. Marion was born in their summer home, in 1895. Frank was expecting Richard when the Clevelands left Washington in March, 1897, and son Francis Grover was born in 1903.

In an era when we focus on a first lady’s accomplishments, it’s easy to dismiss Frank as simply being a pretty face. She was, in fact, the Jackie Kennedy of her time, providing strong support for the theater and actors, and organizing support for passage of a copyright law to protect American authors. She was a strong proponent of early childhood education, when the very concept was still being challenged, and held a kindergarten for Ruth and her playmates in the White House. Frank also advocated for higher education for women. In a nod to the attitudes of her class and era, she was strongly against suffrage for women, but once women gained the right to vote in 1920, she cast her ballot every time.

Her most enduring legacy may be the theater founded by her youngest son – Francis Grover. The Barnstormers Theater, in Tamworth, NH, the oldest ongoing professional theater in the country. And Frances spent many a happy evening there selling tickets and listening to audience reaction.

Happy Birthday, Frank!