Most Sarasotans know by now something about the illustrious Bertha Palmer (also known as Mrs. Potter Palmer), and they’ll learn more during the yearlong celebration of the centennial of her arrival here on Sarasota shores: about her role as a pioneer in everything from women’s rights to cattle ranching to launching the birth of Sarasota as a city and a destination. All worthy and important, but we admit we get caught up in admiring Palmer for something else altogether: her style.
We’re not the only ones. In Chicago, where Bertha long ruled over society from her magnificent home (dubbed The Castle), the Chicago History Museum last year presented an exhibition devoted to the ever-changing but always authoritatively fashionable clothing Bertha wore, in public and in private. Timed to mark the 160th anniversary of her birth, the exhibition drew appreciative crowds to ooh and aah over Bertha’s gowns, hats, shoes, gloves and other accessories.
An accompanying catalogue by the museum’s curator of costumes, Timothy A. Long, provided some insight into just how Bertha Honore, born in Kentucky and married at 21 to Chicago retail magnate Potter Palmer, made the journey from attractive young newlywed to doyenne of all things social and cultural in her adopted hometown. Wrote Long, “Mrs. Palmer followed social custom and stylistic trends, but her own strong opinions most of all. Her personal style, nothing short of extravagant, became de rigueur for the new American rich.”
Bertha came from a well-to-do family and as a young girl was sent to schools where she would mingle with other young ladies of her class and station; her interest in elegant apparel would have begun early. Once backed by her husband’s fortune, Bertha patronized the finest of fashion designers, often from Paris, including the House of Worth (responsible for the embroidered silk satin gown she wore during Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893) and Robina, creators of the day ensemble pictured on the next page. That dress is part of the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago; the Palmers’ Parisian trips naturally provided them with the opportunity to purchase the art of the period—Impressionism—as well, and the institute’s fine Impressionist collection owes much to Bertha.
Bertha spared no pains when acquiring her clothing and other personal objects. Every detail, from a feather to a bracelet to a fan, was carefully selected to project the image of wealth and sophistication, making this “shopkeeper’s wife” the equal of the European aristocrats with whom she frequently mingled. In fact, after Potter’s death in 1892, Bertha spent much of her time in London and Paris, entertaining the cream of European society including Britain’s King Edward VII.
“I would describe her style as opulent, always,” says Long. “She was 5 feet, 4 inches, and had a very small waist because of years of being tightly corseted, giving her a curvaceous figure. Her clothing was almost theatrical, with so much embellishment and those long trains. When she was working to become head of the board of lady managers at the Columbian Exposition, that got her into some trouble; some of her more aggressive competitors for the position pointed out how hard it was for her to move in those elaborate gowns she wore.”
But Bertha always preferred a quieter approach than some of the more vocal women’s rights advocates, using her social connections—lunch at the White House, tea with King Edward—to spread her views regarding important issues. And she was willing to put much of her pomp and splendor aside when she established a winter home in the fledgling town of Sarasota in 1910.
Here her lifestyle, and accordingly her attire, was simpler, more designed for the realities of life as the owner of more than 100,000 acres of land, much of which she developed into farms and ranches, and for her role as a proud grandmother.
“When I went to Sarasota to do research,” says Long, “Bertha, who had always seemed like a character, a stately figure to me, became more of a real person. I think she let her hair down in Sarasota. For one thing, she wasn’t always surrounded by the press. She let herself go uncorseted. My dream was to find a photo of her at her ranch dressed in chaps.”
He didn’t find that, but there is an image of her in the Chicago History Museum catalogue that reveals some-thing about her dual nature. On her Sarasota ranch, inches away from the hog pens, there stands Bertha, wearing a long skirt and coat, non-chalantly holding above her head her satin umbrella. Now that’s style.
There are many events still to come during the centennial celebration of the year of Bertha, among them a Sarasota Magazine-sponsored gala April 10 at her former Sarasota County home, Historic Spanish Point, that includes an elegant dinner on the Duchene Lawn. For more information, visit historicspanishpoint.org. z