Thursday, April 30, 2015

Fashionable Survivor: A Rare Silk Damask Gown, 1777

Thursday, April 30, 2015
Isabella reporting,

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 so beautiful.

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!

Above: Gown, silk, 1777. Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society. Photographs ©2015 Susan Holloway Scott. 
Lower left: Robe, silk, 1775, Collection, LACMA.


Anonymous said...

No close up pic of the shoes? Love this post about the gown, thanks.

Anonymous said...

I would be suspicious about the hooks-- although a few dresses may have had them, I've seen many 18th c. ones in collections which have had hooks & eyes or bars added later for Victorian 'fancy dress' so the lady (or descendant) could wear it as a costume. Not a recommended alteration, but it may have saved a dress or two from being thrown out or cut up!
Lynn S.

Chana said...

Great post! And since I live in the Boston area, I'm definitely going to visit the Massachusetts Historical Society. Thanks for letting me know about the treasures in my own backyard.

Isabel Northwode said...

Beautiful! I've been going to school in Halifax, NS for five years, and it's always lovely to see extant pieces from "home"!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story! I love these articles about the beautiful old clothes you see. They are my favorites.
Becky Stanley

Nicola said...

Recently discovered this wonderful blog, it,s become one of my favourites. I end up going to such amazing places following your links. Thank you so much.eybas

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Anonymous, I won't be sharing the shoes just yet. Kimberly Alexander, who was with me at the MHS, is writing a book on 18th-19th c. shoes for Johns Hopkins to be published next year, and since she will be including the Tailer shoes, I don't want to steal her thunder here on the blog. Can't wait to read the book, which will include many more professional photos than I take with my iPhone. ;) I'll feature it here as soon as it's released. Stay tuned!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Lynn, I know you and I have already discussed the question of the hooks on FB, but I'll repeat my answer here for anyone who didn't see it earlier.

At first glance, I questioned the hooks, too. But Kimberly (who is much more knowledgable than I!) believed they were original, especially given the date of the dress. She compared the hooks to ones on a French bodice she'd seen from Mary Doering's collection. There were also no tell-tale pin-holes in the silk to show it had been pinned earlier. Never say never with 18thc. clothing, but still....

Donna said...

So exciting--and beautiful! Kim's a good friend of mine (and soon-to-be colleague, again) too: such a small digital world.

Kara said...

Thank you, this was really interesting. I am really envious that you got to see these dresses up close and am looking forward to seing more.

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket