Old and very old children’s clothing is hard to come by. Most of the items in the MSU Museum’s collection, even special occasion pieces like christening gowns, are in rough shape.
This girls dress suit from 1871, however, is an exception. Both the dress and the jacket are in nearly perfect condition. There are no signs of sweat or areas of wear. I also couldn’t find any stains, suggesting that this was not worn many times. There are a few small holes, but those most likely were caused by insects long before it ever got to the museum.
What I love about this piece is how much texture and interest is created using just a few materials. The dozens of shiny buttons brighten up the dull brown/grey wool that makes up the majority of the garment. The burgundy piping and bows add a little bit of fun, without being excessively frilly.
Even the soberly colored main fabric is used creatively. Above right, there is a close-up view of the lower right side of the dress. If you look closely you can see that the three lowest layers are cut on the bias grain. This adds a little bit of interesting texture to that part of the dress. I also wonder, however, if that might have been a way to use some otherwise awkwardly shaped bits of fabric.
The suit is also nicely constructed on the inside. It was interlined entirely in a brown cotton fabric and every single one of the buttons was backed by a small ring.
Given the amount of work and material that went into this suit, I’m surprised that it wasn’t heavily worn. I would love to know the story behind it. Did the child this was intended for grow out of it too quickly? Perhaps they passed away from one of the many common diseases of childhood? Or, was this piece intended to be a sales sample, and never really worn at all. Leave a comment below if you have a theory or speculation you’d like to share.