Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Does This 19th c. Dress Deserve a Place in a Museum?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Isabella reporting,

The cotton dress, left, is not the kind to inspire oohs and ahhs of admiration.

Dating from the mid-19th c., it's crudely cut and sewn, without the shaping of waist darts or a lining that more fashionable women's dresses of its time would have had. There's no lace or embroidery for ornamentation, no pleats or tucks or fancy cuffs. The coarse cotton is printed in a clumsy attempt to mimic moire silk. The condition of the dress is well-worn, with a sizable hole in the front of the bodice.

Yet as humble as this dress is, it may be unique in American museum collections, an improbable survivor that's far more rare than ball-gowns worn by queens or presidents' wives.

As I've written earlier (here and here), I recently attended a symposium and exhibition featuring historical clothing sponsored by the Chester County Historical Society. This dress was the centerpiece of the talk given by Nancy Rexford, costume historian and consultant to art and history museums, and it shared the stage with her (which is why it's shown here on an impromptu mannequin.)

Nancy believes that this dress was worn by a woman who worked for her living, and likely worked hard. The simple construction and inexpensive fabric indicate the owner didn't have much money to spend on clothing, and the cotton would have been easy to launder.

Most revealing are the sleeves. While the majority of dresses of this era would have had narrow cuffs, this dress has wide, open sleeves that could be rolled up above the elbow and kept clear of wet or dirty tasks. The wearer might have been a laundress, a cook, a factory worker, or a settler on a farmstead. In other words, an "ordinary" 19th c. American woman. A dress like this would have been worn until it literally fell apart, then cut down for children's clothing, and finally used as rags - all reasons that make this dress's survival so unusual.

Yet as rare as this dress is, it wouldn't have a place in the clothing collections of many American museums. As Nancy pointed out, all collections have restrictions of space and budgets. Trustees and curators must establish a focus to each collection: for example, clothes worn in a certain region, or by a certain group of people, or limited to a certain era.

Many of the more prominent costume collections today are based in art museums, and strive to present only the very best examples of historic clothing, such as the exquisite creations of lace-trimmed silk by Charles Frederick Worth - true works of art. In such collections, there would be no place for this cotton work dress; it would have been de-accessioned, or given its condition, simply discarded. This focus on "masterpieces" may lead to a beautiful collection overall, but concentrating exclusively on clothing worn by the wealthy elite preserves only a fraction of the historical past.

Which leads me back to my original question: if you were a curator of historical fashion, would you include this dress in your collection?

UPDATE: I've heard more from Nancy Rexford about this dress today. First and foremost, the dress most definitely does have a permanent home now in the Chester County Historical Society where it is appreciated for what it is, and I'm sorry if I didn't make that clear. Also, the dress arrived in the collection many years ago; Nancy recalled first seeing it about 1990, when she was dating and identifying all the CCHS dresses.

A few further thoughts from Nancy: "One thing that I didn't have time to mention in the talk is that I think this dress was probably never worn, which may be why it happened to be saved. The fabric feels dusty but unwashed, and it doesn't show signs of wear. I think the hole in the front isn't in a place that indicates wear but looks as if it was caught on a nail. In speculating how such a dress might have been saved, I wonder if it was made for a servant or even a slave in a well-to-do household, a woman who didn't remain in the household long enough to wear it. It could have been put away in case it could be used later, but then nobody ever came along who would fit such a large dress – the dress would fit a tall, substantial woman even by today's standards. The lady of the house wouldn't have wanted to wear it and the fabric wasn't fine enough to re-use, and over time the memory of its original purpose would have eventually been lost. The fact that it was marked 'found in collection' probably means it arrived during an early period when the museum was less professional than it is now. It may have been part of a larger group of clothing, including items from the family of the house, pretty enough to have been given. But alas, we'll never know."

Above: Dress, 19th c. American. Chester County Historical Society. Photography copyright 2014 Susan Holloway Scott.

25 comments:

Jen Bristow said...

Personally, I think this (dress) is more important than Worth's gowns. Worth's dresses were ideals - not everyone could wear them, but this is a dress of an everyday person.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely. Isn't the ultimate point of historic museums to give a modern audience a glimpse into the past? It's just as important to show gowns like this as it is to see Worth's masterpieces. Otherwise we have a skewed view of history.

Jessica Cangiano said...

Wonderful post and question. For me personally, the answer is a resounding "yes". I appreciate and love seeing historical costumes from all walks of life, be they opulent or beautifully humble, and honestly, in the case of the latter, feel I can relate the them more myself, as would have been more akin to what I could have afforded myself, had I been alive back then and living the same sort of life I do now in the 21st century.

♥ Jessica

Nancy said...

Yes, yes, yes! I'm a family historian, very much interested in the everyday aspects of the lives of my foremothers. As far as research as shown me, none of my ancestors were wealthy: many may have worn dresses similar to the one shown in this post. I'm more interested to know about this dress and others like it than all the expensive gowns of queens. By preserving and displaying only the very well-made, ornamented clothing of the wealthy our view becomes skewed and limited.

Maybe someone should create a museum of every-day fashion through the ages.... (Or maybe there is one and I don't know about it?!)

Anonymous said...

Yes!!

Anonymous said...

There should be places for clothes of all levels of society. If they are truly costume musems.

Karen Anne said...

If they don't want dresses like that, they can give them to me :-)

When I see the work that went into joining the bodice to the skirt, and then see the neckline, I think there was a collar on the dress, perhaps of a different material, that was taken off and reused on another dress.

GSGreatEscaper said...

This is why we need small and local museums; to preserve rare glimpses of real life for which a Vreeland or Wintour directed collection would not sacrifice space.

The most revealing thing about this dress, to me, is that although it was a 'working' dress, the fabric is still pretty, 150 or so years on. It demonstrates that women liked to look well, even when working.

Ruth said...

Include, highlight and celebrate! But of course, it depends on whether your collection is meant to help create a window into the past, or to be a celebration of the decorative arts.

Mrs Bertin said...

I think the dress is wonderful, and that it has survived is a miracle. If I were curating an exhibition on historical fashion, I would definitely include this dress. I suppose it always comes down to what fashion is in its essence. Is it a form of art, and if it is, we must collect, preserve and exhibit only the very best. Or is it history, in which case we must preserve a whole range of items of different quality belonging to different people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Otherwise we would just end up creating a vision of the past that favors the rich and famous and completely erasing the experience of any other social strata.

Annabel said...

I certainly would include this dress in a collection. It may not be what we aspire to, but the garments of working women are every bit as industry as those of upper class ladies. One may still benefit from seeing the construction at least.

tonysfo said...

Clothing like this dress were worn buy the people who literally "built America" IMO they are more important to the story of nation building then the fashion statements of thr wealthy

Sheri at Galla Rock said...

I would love to have a dress like this to display during talks on period clothing. So few are the well worn cotton dresses of the working classes.

Lil said...

Yes, of course. A collection would not need a great many examples of dresses like this one, but there need to be some items that ordinary people would have worn.

One thing that struck me about this dress is how vivid the colors are. I would have expected a well-worn dress of inexpensive fabric to be more faded. Or is it even brighter when you look at the inside seams?

Mary Kay Chicoine said...

It took a lot of "lower-class" people to support each person that wore gowns like a Worth. I would love to see collections that include the dresses of these working class people. They probably represent more of what we would be wearing if we were transported back in time.

Nancy Rexford said...

Credit goes to Chester County Historical Society which preserves and values this dress as part of their wonderful collection. Places like this deserve our support.

CC said...

Yes. Providing examples of what "ordinary" people wore in addition to what the wealthy wore is necessary for a complete historical education.

Lindsey Lotz said...

as a public historian I truly believe that this dress is a treasure. there are few examples of average every day clothes for ordinary people. I would love to see this dress properly cared for and preserved for the future.

Mary O'Keefe Kellogg said...

Ah, yes, I recognize that dress!

Last November, the Smith College Theater Department and the Northampton Historical Society collaborated on a symposium (with a campus-wide exhibit): http://www.smith.edu/narrativesofdress/

One of the speakers was Nancy Rexford (accompanied by The Dress). A fascinating speaker, whose insights will change the way you look at clothing.

Mary O'Keefe Kellogg said...

The Smith College Narrative of Dress site links to their Facebook page, where they've recently added a short video:

http://www.smith.edu/video/stitched-in-time

Enjoy!

Ursula Lecoeur said...

I certainly would put it in my collection. As a writer of historical romances set in the 1880s, I believe such a dress would give me a clear idea of the working woman's typical clothing and that's essential in recreating a world for an historical novel. Museums should preserve all types of clothing and accessories, not just the most expensive worn by women of wealth.

Marieli said...

Yes, I would have this dress in my collection. This dress was very likely worn by most of our great-grandmothers. "Common women" raising family, caring for the home, and living tightly with-in the budget of her husbands earnings. I can see her seeing a similar dress at the dry goods store, buying the material, cutting and sewing it in the evenings. Then wearing it to church until it started to show wear. This dress meant something to someone,other wise it would have been cut down for another woman or turned into pieces for a blanket. This is a very special dress.

Varika said...

I would like to join the resounding chorus of yeses. I have another reason to chime in, too: we need to see more fashions that don't conform to, well, to "ideal" standards. What you see with the fancy dresses-as-art-pieces stuff is like watching runway models--but this is more like seeing real people. And since most of us are "real people" rather than fashion models sewn into uncomfortable clothing and fresh out of the hands of an entire staff of cosmetic artists....

Anonymous said...

I am totally baffled by this dress. I'm a retired museum curator and conservator and have handled many "ordinary" pieces of clothing in my time. This is so odd--it fits nowhere. I am wondering if it is hand-sewn or machine sewn? my first thought was "it is unfinished"--nobody would have worn such a neckline or such sleeve endings, at any date. My second thought is "This may have been cobbled together for a theatre performance at a later date"

The waist is downright peculiar. It has an attempt at the pointed bodice of the 1840s but high set sleeves with arm holes so tight they would have ripped on wearing, and no shaping at all. Oh, how I'd love to know its history.

If you do not know the following book you would very much enjoy it: "Calico Chronicle" by Betty J. Mills ,Texas Tech Press, 1985. It is a wonderful account of everyday woman's dress on the Texas frontier from 1830 to 1910, with extremely informative photographs.

Erika W.

Debbie @ VintageDancer.com said...

I would much rather see this is a display than "couture" garments that were only worn once. I love "real" fashions worn by "real" people whose life stories are worn in their everyday clothing.

 
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