Wedding dresses are special clothing, ceremonial garments to be worn only once, yet infused with a lifetime of dreams and wishes.
Last week I had the opportunity to see a wedding dress that was even more special than most. Not only was it a rarity for its age and provenance – nearly three hundred years old, and made in Boston more than a generation before the American Revolution – but for the magic of its very creation. The bride herself embroidered the swirling leaves and flowers, turning her wedding dress into a brilliant masterpiece of needlework.
The bride, Elizabeth Bull, was born in Boston in 1716. While we often tend to think of New England in the early 18th c. as a primitive colony in the wilderness, Boston was a sophisticated town, connected to all the world's seaports by its ships. As the only daughter of a wealthy merchant, Elizabeth was not only taught fine needlework, but had access to silk threads from the best shops in London and silk cloth from China. She also had the time to devote to perfecting her skill, as well as a genuine talent for color and design.
She began the embroidery for this gown when she was still a schoolgirl, around the age of fifteen, and was still working on it when, in 1734, she met the man she would eventually marry, the Reverend Roger Price. When they wed the following year, the embroidery was not finished, nor is it finished today - inked outlines of flowers on the petticoat, left, show that Elizabeth had planned to make the design even more elaborate.
While in many photographs the dress appears off-white, the Chinese silk is in fact an elegant shade of pale celadon green that must have glowed by candlelight. (My camera exaggerated the green in the detail photographs, left - the original color seems to be difficult to capture on film.) The embroidery is in every shade imaginable, the colors of the silk thread still rich and vibrant.
Like many 18th c. dresses (such as this one here and here), Elizabeth's was remodeled and updated at least twice. It's impossible to know exactly how it looked in 1735; in its current state, it reflects the short, puffed sleeves and bell-shaped skirt of the 1830s, with additional fabric and netting trim. The original embroidered petticoat that would once have shown beneath an 18th c. style open skirt was relegated to being an under-petticoat to support the rest of the dress. In the late 19th c., the dress was likely worn as a Colonial Revival costume, and as late as the 1920s it was still being worn, lower right, for photographs for lady's magazines as a relic of the past.
The dress now has a treasured place in the collections of The Bostonian Society, whose conservators have carefully preserved and stabilized it for the future. There's no doubt that the dress has suffered over the centuries, with scattered stains and wear to mark its long life, and it's now so fragile that it can only be on public display once a year (or until funds are raised for a state-of-the-preservation-art display case.) But thanks to historian Kimberly Alexander and Patricia Gilrein, Collections Manager and Exhibitions Coordinator of The Bostonian Society, the dress was brought out from its large, white conservation box and swaths of acid-free tissue for me to see.
And yes, I gasped. The artistry of the embroidered designs, the choice of colors and textures, the consummate skill of the needlework, are all undeniable. But I wasn't prepared for the impact of Elizabeth herself, her presence so palpable in every stitch that she might have been in the room with us. Like every artist, she'd put part of herself into her work - and how very fortunate we are to be able to appreciate her masterpiece today.
Many thanks to Patricia Gilrein, Kimberly Alexander, and the staff of The Bostonian Society for their warm welcome, knowledge, and generosity!
See another blog about this dress - and its mysterious "practice bodice" - here. Detail photographs by Susan Holloway Scott. All other photographs courtesy of The Bostonian Society.
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.