Thursday, October 29, 2015

Revisiting a Special 18thc Wedding Dress

Thursday, October 29, 2015
Isabella reporting,

While I was in Boston last week, I visited the Bostonian Society at the Old State House to see an old friend - if an 18thc wedding dress can be considered a friend! I've previously written two other blog posts (here and here, with many more photos) about this extraordinary wedding dress, embroidered by Boston bride Elizabeth Bull Price in the 1730s.

At that time, I'd only seen the dress flat on its back in its storage box. Now, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, the dress has been conserved for exhibition and a custom mannequin and display case provided, and it can currently be seen in the Council Chamber of the Old State House. In that historic and very male space, the dress is a decidedly feminine interloper, standing there across from the life-sized portrait of King Charles I.

But history affected the women of Boston as well as the men, and Elizabeth Bull Price (1717-1780) saw the small colonial town of her childhood grow into one of the most important cities of a new country. Her dress is a reminder that while the heated politics of 18thc. Massachusetts may dominate the history books, men and women were still falling in love and marrying, with all the usual dreams for shared and happy futures.

With the dress on the mannequin, it's now possible to see Elizabeth's skillful embroidery, right, from all sides; the back, above left, is particularly striking. (It was a very sunny morning, so my apologies for the slanting sunlight in these photos.) Although nearly 300 years old, the colored silk threads are vibrant, the floral designs elaborate and lively. It's also easier to see the alterations that transformed the 1730s dress into an 1830s one, to be worn by a later Price family member. This is the version of the dress that survives today.

That young woman was tiny. According to the measurements of the mannequin, she was about 5'2", and her corseted figure would today wear a J.Crew size 000. The now-unknown 19thc seamstress who updated the dress fortunately was respectful of Elizabeth's handiwork, and it's fascinating to see how she made deep pleats in the skirts to avoid cutting. Alas, the bodice and the puffy sleeves are decidedly 1830s additions, but I'm guessing that the little embroidered "wings" , lower left, over the puffed sleeves are the sleeve flounces from the original dress.

The dress is on display until early November, to be followed by the dress's original petticoat - also beautifully embroidered. If you're on the Freedom Trail, it's well worth a visit. For more about Elizabeth Bull Price and more photos, see here for an excellent article by Tricia Gilrein, Collections Manager and Exhibitions Coordinator of the Bostonian Society.

All photographs ©2015 Susan Holloway Scott.


MrsC (Maryanne) said...

It is absolutely glorious but it's very worrying to see it in such a sunny room - I managed a silk shop and silk will fade in the sun in a couple of days :(

Liz said...

I immediately had the same thought. As a knitwear designer and hand spinner who works with silk, I wondered whether the case has sort of UV filter built into it. We have 19C portraits in our house with special protective glass.

Kathryn said...

I'm sure that the case has UV filters. If they paid to have it conserved and a custom mannequin built, I'm feel certain that they were careful about the environment that it would be displayed in as well.

T. Gilrein said...

Hi Everyone! Thanks for your concern about the fragility of this artifact. I'm the curator of the exhibit, Tricia, and the case has a protective UV coating, and the windows in the gallery have UV shades. We also take care not to display items like this longer than 6 months. It has also come to our attention in the textile world that synthetic dyes fade much more quickly, so 20th-century garments require extra special attention when it comes to light mitigation, but organic dyes are much sturdier!

Unknown said...

I love this dress.
I imagine all the hours it took Elizabeth to embroider all those flower, Do you think she was thinking about her future husband and the life they would make? Or was this a love at first sight? I'm a big romantic.

Karen Anne said...

picture of front of this lovely dress?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Tricia, thanks for setting the record straight on protecting the dress from the sun.

Christina, Elizabeth began the embroidery for the dress when she was still a schoolgirl, around age 15, and she was was working on it still when she was 18 and met the man she was to marry. Nor was it complete when they wed; there are inked guidelines of designs on the dress that were never embroidered. She was a talented needlewoman who clearly enjoyed her handwork as creative expression - the Bostonian Society has several other examples of her work that include not only more embroidery, but also beautifully handsewn baby clothes, plus a few tiny knitted pieces as well. As for a good love story: read the blog post by Patricia Gilrein here, because their "meet" was definitely romance-worthy!

Karen Anne, I didn't include a front view today since I've used them before. But here's a link to the front of the dress: There's also another in the link above. :)

Karen Anne said...

Thanks. Wow.

LeeAnn at Mrs Black's said...

I have enjoyed your articles about this dress. Such intricate work and most probably done in fairly poor light. Truly beautiful. Thank you for sharing details of how textiles like these are protected from the damages of light. So glad it has been preserved.

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