This week I visited the wonderful Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston with one of our blog's good friends, Kimberly Alexander of the historic clothing blog Silk Damask. We had an appointment with Anne E. Bentley, Curator of Art & Artifacts, to see a certain pair of 1747 emerald green damask wedding shoes. We swooned over the shoes (as true Nerdy History folk do) and I wondered aloud whether the shoes had matched the bride's dress.
"They did," replied Ms. Bentley. "I know, because we have the dress, too."
Out came the long, over-sized archive box that is always a sign of marvels to come. There were three beautiful dresses inside that box, nested together in their tissue-paper cocoons: a silvery-green 1840s silk dress and matching pelerine, the emerald silk wedding dress (more about that in a future blog) worn by Rebecca Tailer for her 1747 Boston wedding to Rev. Mather Byles, and the dress shown here, long ago incorrectly identified by family tradition as having belonged to Rebecca Tailer Byles' mother. It's more likely the wedding gown of Rebecca's daughter Abigail, who married Dr. Jon Clark VI in Halifax, NS, in 1777.
And it's sobeautiful.
The silk damask is light and crisp and scattered with lavishly detailed flowers between pink patterned stripes. Most likely French, the silk would have been the highest fashion at the time, and it would have been expensive, too. In the middle of the American Revolution, this silk would have been imported in a merchant ship out-racing privateers, which would have added to its cost.
The dress is an open robe à l'anglaise, lined with linen. The front of the bodice closes not with straight pins (the traditional closure for most 18thc. women's clothing), but with the very modern fastenings of hooks and eyes, middle left. The low neckline would have been filled in with a fine linen neckerchief, and there are narrow bands of pleated trim with scalloped (pinked) edges at the cuffs of the sleeves, lower right.
With its open-front skirt, the gown would have been worn over either a matching petticoat or one of a contrasting color, a look that's common in French fashion plates of the 1770s. The skirt is longer in the back, suggesting that it was worn with a false rump. Kimberly and I also suspect that the skirts were worn looped up in the back for more fullness, although we didn't have time to hunt for the tell-tale signs of stitching for a cord or buttons inside the lining.
Abigail's mantua-maker was well aware of European fashion, and skilled in executing it. She took care to work with the striped pattern of the silk, cutting the sleeves on the cross-grain so that the stripes went around the arm. The back of the gown, upper left, is particularly well-done, using the pink stripes to accentuate the tapering of the waist.
By measuring the gown, we could also tell a bit about Abigail Tailer herself. We're guessing she was about 5' 4" or so in height, and the waist of the gown was 26", with some of that an allowance for her stays and shift - roughly a modern size 6.
The gown as it is now is preserved for study, not display, so I can only offer these detail photographs of it. On a mannequin, it would probably look much like this one, lower left, from LACMA's collections. There's another similar gown from the Manchester Museum featured in Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion 1.
What's the most exciting thing for me about Abigail Tailer's wedding gown? Learning that Kimberly and I were the first people outside the MHS to see it in more than forty years, and probably longer than that. It came to the MHS directly from Abigail's descendants, and it hasn't been featured in any exhibitions or books. It's been waiting patiently all that time in its tissue paper to be rediscovered.
I'd say it was well worth the wait....
Many, many thanks to Anne E. Bentley and the Massachusetts Historical 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.