Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Tragedy of the Ex Dress & the Settee, c1760-80

Sunday, November 27, 2016
Isabella reporting,

Fashion never stands still. But as we've discussed here before, women in the past didn't always buy a new dress to reflect a new style, but instead refurbished, retrimmed, or remade existing clothes that they already owned to fit the latest trends. (See examples here, here, here, and here.)

However, that's not what happened to the once-lovely 18thc dress shown here in pieces.

Last week I visited Winterthur Museum for a fine Nerdy History Girls afternoon with Linda Eaton, John & Marjorie P. McGraw Director of Collections and Senior Curator of Textiles. Linda showed me some of the treasures of Winterthur's costume and textiles collection - my idea of a perfect afternoon. In one of the storage rooms, Linda pulled a long archival box from a shelf and asked me if I'd like to see some "ex dresses." This was a new term to me, and at once I envisioned dresses worn by someone's former girlfriend. But in curatorial language, the "ex" refers more to the former state of the textile; in other words, it once was a dress, and now it's a fragment.

When new in 1760-1780, the ex dress shown here was a fashionable robe a la francaise (like this one), with a floating, pleated back and full petticoat, or skirt. The costly silk was likely woven in either Lyon, France, or Spitalfields, London, England, and then made up into a dress for a wealthy woman. The now-unknown mantua-maker who cut and stitched this dress was a skilled seamstress: the meandering floral pattern is carefully matched on the front of the bodice, with the two fronts mirroring one another.

The dress survived intact until the mid-20thc, when it fell prey not to another dressmaker, but to an upholsterer. In a practice common at the time, the dress was cut apart to provide a period-correct fabric for the 18thc settee also in Winterthur's collection, lower right. In theory this was a good choice: the settee was made in New England in 1760-1775, around the same time as the dress, and the style of the robe a la francaise offered plenty of yardage. In the hierarchy of colonial antiques, furniture outranked clothing until the late 20thc (when the study and collecting of historic dress began to be taken more seriously), and so the dress was sacrificed to outfit the settee.

At least the pieces of the dress that couldn't be used were saved - the bodice plus the shaped
sleeve ruffles, upper right, - but while the fragments are useful for study, they're also heartbreaking. To me the final indignity is the the remnants of the linen lining from the back, above left, showing the inner lacing that would have adjusted the now-vanished pleats.

Many thanks again to Linda Eaton for her assistance with this post.

Left: Ex Dress, maker unknown, silk woven in France or England, dress made in North America, 1760-1780, Winterthur Museum.
Lower right: Settee, maker unknown, Massachusetts, 1760-1775, Winterthur Museum.
Photographs used with permission of Winterthur Museum.


Anonymous said...

Maybe because I was raised poor, maybe because I'm a quilter, maybe because I take worn and ill-fitting clothes apart to re-use for, among other things, pillows, quilts and play clothes for kids and my students, I just can't see re-using lovely fabric as a tragedy. I would rather see it used and loved than thrown out or hidden away.

Anonymous said...

I agree that this is tragic. I wouldn't mind if the dress had been made into another dress, but to see all that amazing dressmaking cut up to make a slipcover! To think that the dress lasted so long only to be ruined in 1950. So sad.

Unknown said...

I find it hard to believe that the original silk fabric would survive until the 1950's and then be re-commissioned. Silk shatters with age. I'd love to see a good close-up of the settee fabric.

Liz said...

Not all silk shatters with age. That's a symptom of weighted silk. The metallic salts cut the fibers, creating the shattering. Earlier silks were not treated this way, so they survive in better condition, if they escaped water damage, moths, fire, and other external forces throughout the years. It's very sad to see a gown sacrificed for a sofa, but that's because I'm heavily biased: I prefer clothes to furniture any day! But, it's a great example of the changing attitudes in the curating world. Now we'd rather use a reproduction fabric on the sofa and spare the dress. But, as Isabella said, at least they saves the pieces. :(

Karen Anne said...

A shame to see what must have been a lovely garment turned into upholstery. Too bad they didn't at least take photographs of it?

On my laptop, the sofa fabric looks to be a alight orange, and the fragments to have a white background...

nightsmusic said...

I have two vanity stools that my grandmother reupholstered in fabric from two very fine dresses she'd worn in the late 1800's. I'd have loved to see the dresses! I've always wondered what they looked like. Though the fabric is beautiful, a heavy silk which I'm guessing had been remade into dresses that fit her from her mother or grandmother prior to her using it as such.

Sarah said...

I was raised to make do and mend, and I'm also a keen patchworker. It would have been nice if a photo had been taken of the dress, but if the fabric was still good it should be used on something that would still make it useful.

Antoinette said...

Sad- but understandable. Having worked in a house with a couture line I remember with horror them shelling out major $$$$$ on these incredible historical pieces just to cut it up for one detail.


Regencyresearcher said...

I have made clothes out of curtains and feed sacks and see nothing wrong with covering a settee with the material in a dress. It just is amazing to see a visual proof of how much material was in those gowns.
Perhaps this gown should have been saved to show off the exquisite workmanship and another sued that wasn't as well done. It is also too bad we don't have a picture of the dress before it was unpicked. However, better to put the material to use than to have it rot away in a corner.

Rebecca Buckley said...

This kind of reckless plundering happens all the time. Think of all the old houses, churches, and other buildings that have their windows, doors, and woodwork stripped out to be sold to the highest bidder and slapped onto some McMansion, while the original buidling is left a shell that's declared derelict and torn down. Also all the Georgian silver that was melted down when the price of precious metal was so high. There's no respect for craftsmanship, only money. I wonder how much the dealer charged for this dress, knowing it would be torn apart?

Denise said...

I'm really of two minds. On one hand, it's sad to see the gown left in pieces. I'd love to see the whole thing. On the other, not every piece is the best example of an era, etc. and at least it was used to restore another period piece rather then ending up in a theater shop or horribly mangled. No easy answers, I guess. I love getting to see the before and after, though. Thanks!

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