As I began to explore the landscape of history and possible topics, professors encourage us to look at Arkansas History for 2 main reasons -- 1) we were in Arkansas and the primary research materials would be accessible, and 2) strong, scholarly history needs to written about the state. This was my problem - I was passionate about late Imperial Russian history. Nicholas and Alexandra, court society, and pretty clothing. Arkansas was about a far as you can get from the Imperial Court of the Autocrats of All the Russias! Or so I thought.
In 1999, I began working at the Old State House Museum. In their collection was the court gown of Katherine Carson Breckinridge. Her husband, Congressman Clifton Rodes Breckinridge of Arkansas, was appointed Minister to Russia in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland. The Breckinridges traveled to Saint Petersburg in late 1894 and arrived 3 days before Tsar Alexander III died. In this twist of fate, Katherine Breckinridge witnessed the funeral of a Tsar, the wedding of the new Tsar to Princess Alix of Hesse-Darnstadt, the coronation of the Tsar and Tsarina and the birth of one of the Grand Duchess. In fact, Arkansas and Russia are not that far apart.
Once I discovered the dress and Katherine Breckinridge, I was on a mission. This WOULD be my thesis topic. The new question became what direction will the paper take - will I focus solely on the dress or will I do a biography of the woman and include the dress as a part? Although I believed I had enough to write just about the dress, the designer John Redfern and the events Breckinridge attended in Russia, I didn't have her whole traveling wardrobe and it would be difficult to produce roughly 150 pages on one garment. So a biographer I would become.
But even with the letters, there were lots of questions left unanswered. What about her childhood and her family in Louisiana? Why did she go to New York to live with her mother's sister? What kind of mother was she? What was her relationship like with her husband - traditional or non-traditional? Who is John Redfern (fashion designer) and why can't I find any information on him in traditional fashion and costume histories? All questions needing answers. And I found the answers to most of them. I will do a series of posts on KCB and more to come...