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.
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.