Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Very Special Embroidered Wedding Dress, 1734

Sunday, August 10, 2014
Isabella reporting,

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.


MrsC (Maryanne) said...

Wow. Just Wow!

Jean said...

Very nice post. Thank you!

Karen Anne said...

That's astonishing. What else do we know about her? I hope the unfinished embroidery was because she was busy, not because of a short life. Is it known who else owned the dress?

Donna said...

This is so lovely

Anonymous said...

I always love your posts, but, wow, this one's special, thank you! Looking forward to Weds. Trevette Hawkins

Unknown said...

So beautiful. Thank you for this piece of history.

Quinn said...

Wow! Words are inadequate for this. Thanks!

Marguerite Scott said...

Thanks for this glimpse of a wonderful work of art and love.

This wee I've been visiting Oxford, England, and am now hovering in Heathrow awaiting a plane back to Australia, reading your post as I while away time.

While I was in Oxford I visited a special exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum which featured 17th century embroidery.

While it was fascinating, I was disappointed in the lack of personal detail about the creators of each work, in contrast to your info, which I enjoyed much more. I'm always interested in the personL details. I wonder if she had a HEA?

In regard to the embroidery on her dress being unfinished, you may be interested to know that a couple of the extremely detailed works in the Ashmolean exhibition were in a similar state - making me feel more sanguine about the unfinished baby sweater I started knitting for my son who is now 31 and ditto for the two unfinished tapestries in my sewing bag that I haven't touched for a decade.

By the way, the exhibition was enriching nevertheless. For example, I loved some of the quotes about the role of needlework in the lives of woman at that time.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I did:

She wrought so well in Needle-worke, that she,
Not yet her works, shall ere forgotten be
John Taylor's poem The Praise of the Needle 1631

It is more commendable a great deal to wear one's own work, than to be made fine with the art of others .... And besides it argues that person not be idle
Hannah Woolley a Supplement to the Queen-like Closet 1674
(Hopefully, she would have been impressed with your young lady.)

I admire all accomplishments that will render you considerable
and lovely in the sight of God and mam ....
Sir Edmund Verney to his daughter Mary at school, 1680s

Thanks again. I love reading your posts.
Marguerite Scott

Steph said...

Thanks so much for this history. When I saw this gown on Punterest I thought it must have been remodeled from its oeiginal design but the museum link didn't have much information. What a beautiful garment.

Steph said...

Sigh... I meant Pinterest. And 'original'.

Unknown said...

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE these pictures!what a beautiful dress. Thanks for sharing...58eveningdress.

Unknown said...

Have you seen the 1718 Sarah Bull wedding dress? It is also embroidered and from NY. I believe it is on display at the Bull Stone House but I do have a poor digital image of it.

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