Monday, March 14, 2011

"Accessories: Head to Toe": White Linen Sleeve Ruffes & a Mysterious Shipwreck

Monday, March 14, 2011
Susan reporting:

More from Accessories: Head to Toe, a symposium hosted by Colonial Williamsburg.

I'd originally planned to cover each day individually, but now that I've made it through the first entire day (and four great sessions), I've realized that that was a bit too ambitious. Two sessions a blog seems much more manageable. Also please note that the photos will all enlarge to show detail; just double-click on the image.

First up this morning was Linda R. Baumgarten, curator, textiles & costume, Colonial Williamsburg (and author of Costume Close-Up), who offered an overview of the costume accessories exhibition currently on display in CW's DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

Several of the stand-out pieces involved white linen. Ladies's accessories of snowy white cotton and linen, especially if beautifully embroidered, were considered a sign of status and rank. Not only could the wearer afford to purchase the finest quality, but she could also afford the skilled servants necessary to keep the linen washed and pressed.  Among the most elegant were the sleeve ruffles attached to the sleeves of mid-18th c. gowns. The top left picture shoes how these ruffles were worn, while the middle left picture shows a ruffle that, while exquisitely embroidered, was never made up. But even after the style for these ruffles had passed, the appreciation for their workmanship remained. Some enterprising lady took a pair of old-fashioned ruffles and adapted them to early 19th c. fashion, lower left, converting them into a collar to fill the low necklines of the new neoclassical styles.

Usually when we think of studying historic dress, we think of garments carefully tucked away and preserved. We don't generally imagine them encased in concretions, sitting at the bottom of an icy river for three centuries. But that has been exactly the scenario faced by the second speaker, Phil Dunning, material culture researcher, Parks Canada, Ottawa, Ontario. In 1690, the ship Elizabeth & Mary sank on its return from an ill-fated English attack on the French Canadian city of Quebec. Most of the ship and its crew vanished, but a small segment of the wreck that settled into a dip in the riverbed was preserved for 300 years until it again surfaced after a winter storm.

While excavating the site and laboriously freeing many of the relics from mineral concretions has taken nearly twenty years (and it's not finished yet), the discoveries have been startling. Not only were the archaeologists able to determine the name of the ship and that the soldiers aboard were militiamen from Dorchester, Massachusetts, but also that they were hardly all the rough-and-tumble backwoods colonial soldiers that are the stereotype for the era.

Instead the wreck revealed fashionable heeled men's shoes, stylish shoe buckles, and heart-shaped silver shirt brooches. While all clothing of linen and cotton had dissolved, that of silk and wool had not, and scraps of fancy knitted stockings, braided garters, and a length of striped silk ribbon from a gentleman's ribbon shoulder or sword knot were retrieved. Such tantalizing clues proved that the Dorchester officers – the most prominent men of their town – continued to dress to reflect their status even when embarking on a military expedition, and brought their fashionable, imported clothing with them. Fascinating!

Top left: Sleeve Ruffle, England or Europe, 1760-1785. Red Bow from Woman's Gown, France, c. 1770, silk & silk chenille. Miniature Portrait of a Member of the Fauquier Family, used as a Bracelet, by John Small (1740-1811), London, England.
Middle left: Unmade Ruffle, Europe, 1740-1760, cotton embroidered with linen.
Lower left: Cap, Connecticut, c. 1800, cotton embroidered with cotton, cotton and linen lace.  Collar made from Sleeve Ruffles, probably England, c. 1770, remade after 1800. Cotton embroidered with cotton.
Above all from the collections of Colonial Williamsburg.
Bottom right: A few of the pieces excavated from the wreck of the Elizabeth & Mary, including a heeled shoe, buckles, and scraps of clothing.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

That collar (dickey?) made from the sleeve ruffs is insanely beautiful. What a clever bit of repurposing.

nightsmusic said...

Gorgeous! And the information about the 'soldiers' is fascinating, though really, when you think about it, that practice was still going on during the Civil War.

I have a few pieces similar to the unformed collar piece and though they're not nearly as old as the one shown, they too were lovingly embroidered by family members during the mid 1800's. I keep them wrapped in acid free paper and once in awhile, will take them out just to appreciate again the skill it takes to do such minute, painstaking work.

Laura Ingalls Gunn said...

I have been trying to make my own sleeve ruffles. This is a good start. Thank you SO much!

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