Friday, February 12, 2016

One Shot: Day Dress 1860-1865

    Conserved garments are sometimes significant, not for the particulars of their loveliness but because they exemplify a period so completely. This day dress is a perfect candidate in that regard.  This American made, and very likely home sewn dress, gives us a clear, clean picture of the shape, popular decoration, and position in society that fashion was decreeing for women of the time.
    As I have written before, by this time, with the ready availability of sewing machines, clothing needed to become larger to make status clear.  As well, skirts had been doing a steady increase in volume for decades so this further expansion, aided by the cage crinoline, was an inevitability. This staunchly middle class garment probably had its major structural seams done by machine, leaving all the remaining work of construction and decoration to be done by hand. It is in the hand work that we can determine that this was most likely a home sewn dress.  There are inaccuracies in the construction and finish that would not have been tolerated from a professional dressmaker.
    It was very often the case that a dress of this nature would leave the skirt entirely un-ornamented in order that a second evening bodice could be made, allowing the dress to serve multiple purposes.  Since this dress is made of good quality plain woven silk, it is likely this was the case, though a second bodice does not exist to confirm that.
    The bodice has a deep basque that is split on either side, and belted.  To the rear of the belt there is a structured bow with a cockade of knife pleated black silk sitting above a draped mass that is essentially a bustle about to be born.  It will just a few more years before the bustle appears for the first time.
    The military inspired decoration was a common theme in women's clothing during this period.  This dress bodice, with its tabs and shoulder wings it apes the jackets of cavalry officers.  Of course the bullion fringes and gold braiding have been replaced by soutache braid and mother of pearl discs.
    Where we get to see the evidence of home sewing craft is in the details of the decorative work.

The soutache braid that trims the bands is unevenly attached and sometimes rather sloppily sewn, as though it was done hastily.  Looking at the back of the dress the tab that extends from the bottom of the basque is off center.  The shell discs that trim the shoulders and bodice hem are not perfectly spaced, as though the sewer didn't measure distance, just did the positioning by sight.
    My final point here is about societal position. This dress is a poster child example of what was expected. It shows us exactly the level of rectitude and reserve that was considered correct for women of the day.  This is a garment for a person who conforms, and knows their role in the home, the family, and the larger community, which is precisely what was intended. 
    The woman who wore this was a middle class lady, who likely had some servants to direct, but was not so well off that her day was without industry.  This dress is quite possibly the result of her labor during her slower parts of her day.  That may also account for the somewhat hasty look of some of the trimming work.
    At the end of it all, clothing like this has much to tell us, and perhaps it is these more humble efforts that end up saying more than the grand efforts of the first couturiers, and the master class dressmakers.


  1. "Hastily trimmed" suggests that this might have been yet another garment made by ripping the curtains from the window, in a madcap attempt to convince Cap'n Butler that I'm still pretty and prosperous, and that I don't need his money or his pity, even tho' I do. But he'll see through me, as he always does.

  2. This is a gorgeous thing; maybe the craftsmanship isn't quite up to par, but the elegant design and utter stylishness are exemplary. : )