The Dress With Many Lives

Fashion collections tend to have a disproportionately high number of garments intended for parties or other formal events.  We all love to swoon over a luxurious velvet or silk garment.  Everyday items also are less likely to survive, since in many cases they would have been worn until they were no longer wearable.

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This dress, however, is extra special.  The exact date of the piece is unknown, but it is estimated to be from around 1850, making it one of the older garments in our collection. Given the date, it is possible that the color was made using one of the famous arsenic containing dyes such as Paris Green.  Most important, however, is that this dress shows clear signs of having undergone several different alterations, both for fit and style.

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If you look closely at the bodice above you can see that an extra piece of fabric has been added along the outer edge of the side front panels. These were both about 3/4″ wide, adding an extra 1.5″ to the waist. The inserts were made from bias cut strips of fabric, allowing them to stretch and bend to the shape of the bodice seams.

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Looking at the inside of the garment, you can spot where extra fabric was inserted easily because they aren’t interlined with brown cotton like the rest of the garment.  More interesting than that, however, is the extra bits of folded fabric at the neckline.  It appears that originally the dress had a high, jewel style, neckline.  The shoulder seams have been folded down on both the front and back to form a makeshift facing.

Above you can see the dress both as it would have been worn after the alteration and with the original high neckline.

The other major alteration revolved by looking inside the dress is a shortening of the skirt.  The dress was taken up by separating the skirt and bodice then sewing the skirt back on 4″ further down.  The excess fabric was simply folded down and hidden inside the skirt.

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This method of alteration seems like a lot of work, but it would have allowed the seamstress to avoid re-hemming the skirt and ruining the lovely velvet decorations at the hem.

I also noticed when looking at the interior of the bodice that there was no boning.  This was a little unusual for this style of dress. This made more sense when I discovered that there were three more pieces that went along with this dress.

Upon inspection, these turned out to be a Swiss Waist with two detached straps.  This garment looks like a corset, but is made from lighter fabric and is much less stiffly boned.  It would have been worn like a belt on top of the dress.  This would have added the structure so common in bodices at the time.

This ensemble is a great part of the collection because it is much, more than a pretty dress.


One comment

  1. Marie Gile · · Reply

    I thoroughly enjoyed your discussion of the alterations made to this garment and the close up images – to illustrate your discussion. Thanks for choosing this lovely collection piece to talk about.


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