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The Lafayette Ball Gown

Posted: May 15, 2014 8:49 a.m.
Updated: May 16, 2014 5:00 a.m.

The Camden Archives and Museum has been entrusted with the care of the famed Lafayette Ball gown worn by Margaret Evans Larkin Rochelle Starke in 1825 on the occasion of General Lafayette’s visit to Camden. Margaret (1791-1872) was the wife of Thomas Starke (1789-1855). They resided in Fairfield County where Thomas was a planter of some means. Margaret wore this dress six months after the birth of her seventh child and it would have been a flattering style for a post-pregnancy figure.

The gold silk dress is made in the Empire style, with a high waist and apron front, gathered in the front and elegantly pleated in the back. The apron front is gathered by a brown silk drawstring above the bosom and the high waist was once gathered by a brown silk sash which tied in the front and was tacked at the waist in the back.

As our museum textile expert, Mackenzie Sholtz, inspected the dress, it began to “speak” to us by revealing alterations made to it through the years. The dress would have been past its height of style in 1825, when the Empire look was being replaced by the Romantic style. Ten years earlier, when Margaret would have been 24, this dress would have been the style of choice. It may have served as her wedding dress when she married Thomas in 1811. In its earlier form, it had ties on either side of the apron front which tied in the back of the dress, cinching in the high front waist. It also likely had longer sleeves.

Perhaps in a quest to update it for the ball, the side ties were removed (we can still see the stitch holes where they were). After the side ties were removed, the brown silk sash tied in the front served to cinch the high waistline. The sleeves were cut shorter and ruched upward by stitching and gathering them vertically to make them appear puffy. With these changes, the dress had a more transitional look toward the Romantic style lines. Resourceful girl, that Margaret! With the tortoiseshell tiara comb that she wore in her hair that night, she cut quite a stylish figure without the cost of a new gown!

As Margaret prepared her dress for the Lafayette Ball, Thomas must have ridden into Camden to pick up their tickets to the ball, distributed to people from the bar in the Camden Hotel. The ball was only a part of the huge celebration planned by towns all over the United States prior to Lafayette’s 1824-1825 visit to the country he fought for during the Revolutionary War. He was invited here by President James Monroe to help the United States celebrate her 50th anniversary of the American Revolution and to inspire patriotism in the next generations of Americans. While here for 13 months, he visited all 24 states and met a jubilant reception every place he went as the “last living Major General of the Revolutionary War.”

He was infinitely qualified to inspire patriotism in the hearts of Americans. The Marquis de Lafayette, a young French nobleman, came to America in 1778 to assist Gen. George Washington and the Continental troops in their fight for American freedom from the British. He fought under Washington’s command at Valley Forge, Brandywine, Albany, Barren Hill, Monmouth, and in Rhode Island. He returned to France to seek French support for the American cause in 1779, bringing back word in 1780 that five French frigates and an additional 5,500 soldiers would arrive from France to aid the Americans. His final brilliant act of the Revolution was at Yorktown where the British were entrenched. Lafayette’s command of American troops on Malvern Hill trapped the British when the promised French fleet arrived in 1781 and the Battle of Yorktown sealed the fate of the defeated British and secured the Revolution for the Continentals.

Of Lafayette’s several stops in South Carolina, Camden was the second. Oh my, were the citizens of Camden prepared for this event! The Committee of Arrangements printed its final plan for the celebration in the March 5, 1825, newspaper in minute detail. Except for the details of the ball, of course! We know it was held at the Camden Hotel and started after Lafayette enjoyed a 5 p.m. dinner with the Masonic Lodge. The citizens of Camden feted Lafayette until 11 p.m. when he retired from the ball to his quarters at the home which became known as Lafayette Hall on Broad Street. Later, Margaret tucked her dress away for posterity.      

We thank Sally Oliver Gravino, who donated the dress, and all of the generations of Starke descendants who carefully and lovingly saved the dress and its provenance. Stop by the Camden Archives and Museum to see Margaret’s Lafayette Ball gown!

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