This week, I got to do some independent research at the Drexel Historic Costume Collection, with the guidance of Clare Sauro and Monica Stevens-Smyth. This research gave me an opportunity to really analyze my object on multiple levels. Through this careful analysis, I received more information about the object itself, and the conventions of the time. I also, honestly had a great time, and it was a really informative and exciting experience.
Some technical details about the dress itself include its measurements. They are as followed; the full length of the bodice is 31 inches, the waist (single across) is 11 ¾ inches, (so this woman had a 23-inch waist, which is pretty small). The back-waist length of the bodice was 31 inches. The sleeve length (from its shoulder seam to the lace fringe of the sleeve) is 18 inches, and the width of the sleeve at the elbow is 5 ½ inches. The front of the skirt is 39 inches, and the back of the skirt measures 55 inches. The total circumference of the skirt is 131 inches, (accounting for the total of the measurement of the front of the skirt which was 57inches and the back which was 74 inches.) What the measurements revealed that I found incredibly interesting was the measurements of the dress revealed the height of the woman. By comparing the waist and skirt to a 5’6 mannequin at the Costume Collection, the woman who owned the dress was 5 ft. I was surprised when I heard this, that of all the items I could have chosen, I picked something that was actually fitted for someone my height, and it sort of humanized the whole research experience in a way.
The more stylistic components were also incredibly informative. Getting to the material of the dress, it is primarily made of silk of a cream color. This color closely resembled what the dress looked like in its day, unlike certain dyes that have the ability to change the color of the material as it fades. The kind of weaving with the floral motifs is gold, and these detail elements were speculated to be machine made. The dress was meant to be worn outdoors, based on observation it’s not as formal as a ball gown. It could be early evening or afternoon dress, it’s stylistic components could even place it as a bridal dress! Regardless of what occasion the dress was worn for, it is definitively from the early stages of the bustle period, circa 1870. Since the silk textile itself is so complicated with the gold weaving and what not, it is probably French in design. The dress also contains more embellishing than the weaving. On both the bodice and the skirt, it has glass beads (both the clear and white beads featured on the dress are glass) and glass pearls (they’re probably not actual pearls though). On the bodice especially, the dress also has more silk gold flower as a design element. The back of the bodice features more silk ribbons and silk tassels, with pearls as more embellishment. The collar and the sleeves of the dress have lace on it as well and silk flowers, this lace has yellowed with age and was probably a lighter color at the time it was made). One interesting aspect was that on closer inspection, an observer could recognize that the lace was handmade, given the irregularities of the lace.
Given the time period, whoever wore this dress would definitely had worn a corset with it. An interesting notion I learned was how the corset would have affected the appearance of the dress as well the information I learned from “The Many Figures of Eve” reading. For one thing, because the wearer had a corset the back bodice would have looked incredibly curved when worn, which changed the way I pictured the dress, given it’s static placement on the observation table. It was also easier to visualize how the corset would have affected the wearer when I could see the dress in front of me. Overall because of the many designs and other elements of the dress, it would have been worn by someone who was well-off (which especially clear in it’s coloring I mean It’s a gold dress). Another aspect considered was the fact that that the dress itself is heavy. I did not have the opportunity to physically weigh the dress, but the sheer size and volume of the skirt reveals this alone, especially when compared to something like the lace dress that is also another object we’ve looked at.
This was the first time I got to see the skirt of the dress in full, as before it was kept in the box. The skirt has many stylistic embellishments, for the sake of fashion. Examples of this include a continuation of the floral motif weavings, and more beading on the skirt. It also has asymmetrical cinched pieces of silk for aesthetic purposes. The underskirt is made of a twill-cotton fabric and not silk like the other pieces of the dress. Inside the skirt is also a piece of ribbon which was not originally part of the dress, it was added later on. The skirt itself is a full skirt with a train, and an interesting aspect of the interior of the skirt is that it has “loose plainweave” silk which was a pleated liner to catch dirt from getting on the dress itself.
The seams on the dress are very simple and standard of the time, for example the center back seam, of the bodice is machine made, whereas the finishing and label were added by hand. What makes this dress stand out is the more outlandish and stylistic aspects of the piece. Inside the bodice is a piece of ribbon known as the Petersham, used as an anchor around the wearer’s waist. Since the Petersham displays “Darlington & Runk Co. Philadelphia,” the name of the department store where it was sold, the dressmaker could have worked on this dress in the store itself. As a whole, this deep dive into the appearance of this dress was a unique and rewarding opportunity.