Sunday, March 18, 2018

An Unfinished Gown with Secrets to Share, c1785

Sunday, March 18, 2018
Susan reporting,

Historical clothing is collected, preserved, and valued for many reasons. A garment can be considered significant because it belonged to a famous person, or because it belonged to a person whom history has forgotten entirely. Another item could be treasured for the family story behind it, or could have been worn to a significant historical event. A garment can be treasured because it represents the highest level of craftsmanship and skill, or because was fashioned from rare and costly textiles.

And then there is this dress in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg. (Those of you who attended the Costume Society of America 2018 Symposium in CW last week will recognize it from the keynote discussion.) Made in America of printed cotton around 1785-1795 and purchased by CW in 2004, the dress is a popular style of the time known as a common gown. The open-front dress would have been worn over a petticoat (skirt), stays, and a false rump, and would also have had 3/4- or wrist-length sleeves. Depending on the light, the ground-color of the printed cotton appears either dark purple or brown, though chemical analysis has shown it was originally a shade with deep red overtones from a cochineal-based dye.

The reason this gown holds a special place in the CW collection, however, is not what it is, but what it isn't: it was never finished. While sufficiently assembled for fitting, the gown still has extra-wide seams allowances that would eventually be trimmed away and basting threads to hold the pleats in place and to indicate where trim would be added. Most notably, stitching holes indicate that sleeves (now lost) had once been stitched in place, and were then removed. The armholes are quite high, and it's possible that they didn't fit the intended wearer. 

Still, no one now knows why the dress was abandoned so close to completion. Yet in this state, the dress reveals a rare glimpse at the mantua-maker's working and construction methods; it's frozen in time, there at the final fitting. In addition, the unworn dress presents a glazed, printed cotton in a pristine condition. For the sake of preserving this glazed finish, it's unlikely that the dress will ever go on public display and risk light-damage to the delicate surface. See more images of the original dress plus descriptions of how the fabric was produced here on the CW e-museum website.

The dress is also unusual for another reason. Most surviving 18thc dresses tend to be small - not because all 18thc women were petite, but because in an era when remodeling and recutting clothing was common, the smaller gowns didn't offer enough fabric to make recycling feasible. This gown was intended for a tall woman - 5'10" or even taller - with a 46" bust and a 42" waist.

While the original gown is primarily a study garment in the collection, it has already inspired several copies. First, the printed cotton fabric has been commercially reproduced for sale (it can be ordered by the yard here.) An exact one-to-one copy of the dress to be used for study was created by CW's Costume Design Center, who also made another copy to be worn as a costume in the historic area.

Finally (at least for now) the mantua-makers of the Margaret Hunter shop in CW's historic trades program made a technological reproduction, recreating the dress using 18thc hand-sewing and other period-correct techniques. This version was completed based on other similar dresses from the period, and is shown right worn by Janea Whitacre, mistress of the mantua-making trade. It's stunning in person - which makes you wonder all over again why the original was never finished.

Left: Gown, maker unknown, 1785-1795, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Photograph courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg.
Right: Technological reproduction gown, made the Margaret Hunter shop, Colonial Williamsburg, 2018. Photograph ©2018 Susan Holloway Scott.

2 comments:

Danielle Thorne said...

The photograph of the modeled replica really brings it to life. It's lovely.

Patti Myers said...

What beautiful fabric! (And what an intriguing mystery.)

 
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