Sunday, May 17, 2015

From the Archives: Recycling a Silk Gown, from 1740 to 1840

Sunday, May 17, 2015
Isabella reporting:

This is a travel day for me - I'm on my way to Colonial Williamsburg for a few days, and will be sure to report on what I see. In the meantime, enjoy one of our more popular posts from our archives. 

Recycling is a hot trend in fashion right now, and we're all urged to make-over and make-do for the sake of the planet and our wallets. It's hardly a new idea, of course. Stylish (and thrifty) folk of the past were as conscious of changing trends as we are today, and they often took older clothes to their mantua-makers and tailors to follow the latest looks from London and Paris.

But sometimes the remodeling created an entirely new garment. In a time when the largest cost of clothing production was in the material, not the labor, older clothing was often picked apart so that the fabric could be reused. One of the reasons that banyans like this one are so rare today is that they contained considerable tempting yardage for re-cutting, and with their wide, pleated petticoats and bodices, 18th c. gowns often met the same fate.

The Victorian ballgown, above left, was made around 1840. While the sloping shoulders, v-shaped bodice, and bell-shaped skirt are all in the latest fashion, the over-sized floral pattern of the silk damask and its brilliant red were popular a hundred years before (as in these silk designs by Anna Maria Garthwaite.)

Most likely the Victorian gown began its life as a Georgian gown like this one, lower right. No one now knows if the older gown's silk was reused a hundred years later because the wearer was economizing, or if the damask was a sentimental choice from a treasured family gown, or simply a color she liked. Whatever the reason, the results are beautiful.

Above: Dress (Ball Gown), British, c. 1842. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009.
Below: Gown, British, c. 1740s, Costume Collection, Leeds Museum.


Lynne Z. Bassett said...

Hello! Thank you for posting this beautiful dress! It was, in fact, very fashionable in the 1840s to remake an 18th-century gown into a contemporary style. This was part of the Romantic fascination with history--plucking elements of fashion from the past 500 years to mix and merge into new designs. I will be displaying another 1840s dress made from 18th-century fabric in my exhibition, "Gothic to Goth: Romantic Era Fashion and Its Legacy" at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, CT, opening in March 2016. The dress I'll be showing still has its original matching shoes from when it was in its 18th-century form. I'd be honored if you'd come visit! I'll give you a personal tour.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Lynne ~ this all sounds fascinating! Could you email me at so we can discuss further? Thanks! :)

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