Life with Cora Ginsburg was a perpetual trunk show. Six years after the dealer’s death in 2003, her protégée, Titi Halle, is still plumbing the depths of the inventory of rare costumes, textiles, and needlework she acquired when she purchased the Cora Ginsburg gallery in New York in 1997.
One recent rediscovery is a man’s handsewn suit of heavy natural linen trimmed with wool braids, fringes, and lace. Halle believes that Ginsburg bought it in England before 1980 but no documentation survives.
“It was crudely made, roughly worn, and possibly added to over time,” says Halle, who exhibited the garment at the 2009 Winter Antiques Show in New York, where it was promptly reserved by a still undisclosed museum client.
The clownlike costume is appliquéd with colorful felt hearts, diamonds, and circles, shapes suggestive of the commedia dell’arte character Harlequin. The jacket’s most prominent motifs, leering devils and pipe-smoking men, remain a mystery. The pointed tasseled cap dated 1829 is initialed “T.F.,” probably for Tom Fool, the simpleton who was a stock character of English folk theater. Called mummers’ or guisers’ plays, the dramas were performed seasonally, mainly between Christmastide and Plough Monday—in the streets, from door to door, and in local pubs.
Late last spring, an online hunt led Halle’s researcher, Michele Majer, to Peter Millington, an energetic authority on English folk drama whose many projects include Master Mummers, a Web site chronicling historical research and live performance. Dozens of troupes still enact mummers’ plays at hundreds of venues throughout England.
Mummery flourished in North America, too, notably in Philadelphia, where the annual Mummers’ Parade on New Year’s Day is rooted in holiday masquerades well established by 1790, when George Washington moved into the President’s House on Market Street. The city banned the masquerades as “common nuisances” in 1808, but the ban, never observed, was overturned in 1901, when the parade was officially sanctioned.
Millington was struck by the costume’s resemblance to an 1893 Plough Monday costume from Cropwell, Nottinghamshire, now in the Nottingham Museum. He also recalled a photograph of about 1872 depicting a sword dance play in Bellerby, North Yorkshire, where two men, fools, appear dressed as clowns alongside six dancers. Sword dancing was often performed with mummers’ plays.
“Sword dancing was a way for English working-class men to earn a little money at holiday time for purposes ranging from buying beer to supporting local charities,” explains Stephen D. Corrsin, the author of several books on early dance and a founder of the dance group New World Sword. Over President’s Day weekend, troupes from Boston to Baltimore gathered in New York, dancing their way from the Staten Island Ferry to the Brooklyn Museum.
“Rarely in my career have I fallen in love with a costume so immediately,” says Dilys Blum, the Jack M. and Annette Y. Friedland Senior Curator of Costume and Textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Last year the museum acquired a 1997 mummer’s costume made by Del Buono Costumes for the Quaker City String Band, a fraternal organization that has been marching since 1920. For a city that revels in the glorious excesses of its own folk pageantry, Ginsburg’s fool would be a happy addition.
Mummer’s costume, English, 1829. Linen with wool appliqués. Photograph by courtesy of Cora Ginsburg, New York.