Wednesday, June 3, 2015

An 1836 Wedding Gown with Matching Slippers

Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Isabella reporting,

June is the month for brides, and here's an 1836 wedding gown with matching slippers to usher in the season. Both are included in the same exhibition (Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories 1750-1850) that I mentioned here on Monday, and earlier here.

Sarah Eliza Smith married Mark Langdon Hill in Bath, Maine, on October 11, 1836. This was a fashionable wedding. Not only are the bride's wedding clothes made of a costly silk damask, but the bridegroom was from a prominent New England family, the great-nephew of Governor John Langdon, a Revolutionary War general, a signer of the US Constitution, and a prosperous merchant and ship-builder.

Certainly the bride was dressed for the occasion. While some 19thc. brides were choosing white for their gowns (as we've noted before, this was by no means traditional at this point, and no, Queen Victoria did not "invent" the white wedding dress), Sarah Eliza chose an elegant shade of celadon green silk damask, which has unfortunately faded to beige over the centuries.

Although the name of the dress's maker is now forgotten, she was clearly very skilled. The tiny pleats, tucks, and gathers of the sleeves and bodice were all beautifully stitched by hand, with many of the seams trimmed with matching piping as well. The dress would have originally been worn with feather-stuffed sleeve puffs to fill out the sleeves to give it the extravagant silhouette shown in this fashion plate. (Today the silk is too fragile to manipulate for any "stuffing" for display.) The full sleeves might also have made the bride appear almost as wide as she was tall; from the size of her dress, Sarah Eliza must have been tiny, probably only about 4'10" or so.

Her matching slippers have silk rosettes on the toes and leather soles, and are as insubstantial as a feather. They still follow the shape of flat, Romantic-era slippers. The thin silk cords for tying around the foot and ankle to help secure the delicate shoe to the foot still survive, too. It's easy to imagine Sarah Eliza dancing with her new bridegroom, her skirts swirling over the silk rosettes - perhaps even attempting that a daring European dance, the waltz.

Many thanks to our good friend Kimberly Alexander for assistance with this post. For more information about these shoes and many others, stayed tuned for Kimberly's upcoming book Georgian Shoe Stories From Early America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.) In the meantime, please check out her blog, Silk Damask, for more fascinating fashion and textile history.

Wedding Dress and Slippers, 1836, worn at the wedding of Sarah Eliza Smith to Mark Langdon Hill. Portsmouth Historical Society.

Photographs copyright 2015 Susan Holloway Scott.


Hels said...

I am not surprised that the silk damask was costly. It was luscious, expensive material and her dress seems to have required metres of the stuff.

AuntieNan said...

Thank you for this! I didn't know about sleeve puffs, but it makes sense, rather than install them in every dress you make. I love the look of the sloping banded shoulders and breast of these dresses, but having worn one, they are a trial for a modern woman to move around in. As the costumer who made my dress explained, genteel women were not expected to be raising their arms much! Feature her dismay when I told her the dances we were doing onstage needed LOTS of raising and lowering of arms... But this dress is wonderful, and I'm so glad he family, and ultimately the museum, preserved it for our wondering eyes!
Thanks! LOVE your posts,
Nancy N

Karen Anne said...

How did they determine the color? Did they pick apart part of a hem? Too bad there is not a photo of that.

Karen Anne said...

Following the link about white wedding dresses, lead me to wonder where the barbarous custom of white being restricted to virgins came from. The closest I could come was

which says it is from Godey's Lady's book in 1849, but that just cites "from the earliest ages."

Cathy Spencer, Author said...

I just had a look at your Pinterest collection of historical wedding gowns. Very impressive. I thought that the waist of Catherine the Great's dress was impossibly small until I saw Elizabeth Taylor wearing the gown from "The Father of the Bride." Wowza!

SilkDamask said...

Many thanks for giving our petite bride the attention she deserves! The mannequin was made by Astrida Schaeffer of Schaeffer Arts and adds much to the experience.

nightsmusic said...

Gorgeous! I'd love to know how long it took to sew since those kinds of seams and such are time consuming, no matter how good you are.

@Cathy Spencer, take a look at Elizabeth Taylor's waist in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in the white dress she wears. Talk about Tiny!!

SilkDamask said...

Hello Karen Anne- You can see areas of the original celadon green underneath the random ruffle and here and there, where the light did not fall on the dress. We were especially fortunate that a swatch of the original textile was rolled loosely and placed inside one of the shoes, protecting it. It is extremely difficult to capture on camera.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Note - "Silk Damask", who has left two comments with more information about the dress, is Kimberly Alexander, co-curator of the exhibition and very familiar with the shoes and clothing in it. Thanks for stopping by, Kimberly! :)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thank you for checking out our Pinterest board of historical wedding dresses, Cathy! For anyone else who'd like to take a peek (and no, you don't have to be a member of Pinterest to have a look-see), we have over 600 pinned, and always hunting for more. Here's the link:

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