Recently I wrote here about an 18th c. gown that had been creatively remade and recycled a hundred years later into a 19th c. ballgown. Soon after I came across this 18th c. gown, left, that had likewise been "repurposed," but for different reasons.
Historians have determined from the brocaded floral pattern of the silk that this fabric was first made into a gown around 1727. Most likely the silk was imported from London to the then-colony of Virginia, and made up into a gown (that might have looked like this) by a mantua-maker there for a wealthy lady. Styles changed, but the silk was too valuable to be discarded, and the gown was saved.
Fifty years later, the colony of Virginia was in the middle of the American Revolution. Just as patriotic American ladies were banishing English tea from their tables, they were also no longer wearing the newest silks imported from London. Making over and making do was a way of making a political statement as well as a necessity, and there were even some (male) calls for everyone to wear homespun linen and wool. But even the most fervently rebellious ladies still wished to dress fashionably, and old gowns were now brought to the mantua-makers to be recut into the new styles being worn in London and Paris. Sometime between 1770-1782, the 1727 gown was remade into its present state, with a narrowed back, fitted sleeves, and draped, polonaise style skirts. (The dark red petticoat is a modern reproduction.)
By now the gown was owned by Martha Kerby (b. 1747), who became the second wife of Captain Miles King (1747-1814) in April, 1782 in Elizabeth City, VA. Martha may even have worn it for her wedding. Perhaps for sentimental reasons (or simply because Martha was bearing five children between 1785-1796), the gown was once again set aside and preserved. As the 18th c. came to a close, fashionable waistlines rose and the heavy woven damasks and brocades were replaced by lighter fabrics, making this gown woefully out of fashion.
But according to King family tradition, the gown had one more act ahead of it. In 1824, Revolutionary War general the Marquis de La Fayette (1757-1834) returned to America to help celebrate the country's fiftieth anniversary. In a year-long tour, La Fayette visited all 24 states and traveled more than 6,000 miles - no mean feat considering both the roads and the marquis's age. He was feted everywhere he appeared, including several events in Virginia. As the widow of a Revolutionary War soldier, Martha Kerby King was invited to one of the balls in his honor, where patriotic ladies wore gowns from the 1770s (the fifty-year-old vintage dresses of their day) to honor both the marquis and the country's anniversary. Supposedly Martha once again wore her blue silk flowered gown – and danced with the Marquis de la Fayette.
Above: Dress, c 1770-1785, Smithsonian, National Museum of American History; given by Mrs. Claude M. Bain and Mrs. Hugh M. North, Jr.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.