Friday, March 31, 2017

Not Yo Average Field Trip: 1848-51

One of the biggest take-aways from Costume College 2016 was how many of the most knowledgeable people there spoke specifically of dresses that they had seen in person. They spoke of what they had seen at the such-and-such museum, and how they had seen the so-and-so technique used inside a garment they had handled.

My first thought: how do I get my hands on original garments, so I too can speak from first-hand experience? Whatever knowledge I possess has been through the internet, and construction is something I've been interested in. Finding pictures of the inside of a garment is tricky, and even misleading. So I did a little research, and discovered that my local museum actually has a huge collection, just not on display. In fact, it's not really even catalogued anywhere that you can access.

After coming home from Costume College, I knew that spending time at the museum was something I wanted to do, but you can't just waltz in and grab an antique garment off a rack at the museum. You have to send in a physical paper form requesting permission, and they have to actually vote to give you access. 

I brought my camera, a measuring tape (actually a few) and a notebook and pen. I was worried there would be more that I needed and couldn't think of, but nothing came up.

There are four dresses altogether; they were c. 1847-52, c. 1855-59, c. 1862-65, and c. 1866-68.

The first dress (c. 1847-52) is a shot silk, blue and brown. It has a full front with very controlled pleating that fans up to the shoulder; it's lined with a fitted lining, of which I can't remember what it was. The buttons up the front aren't functional, but the edges on the front are barely sewn together, almost like someone wanted a front opening dress, then changed their mind. It hooks up at the back of the bodice.
This picture is showing the pleating, as shown from the backside.

The waist is very dropped (maybe 2'' below natural waist on the side) and the length of the skirt doesn't quite seem proportionate. It's possible it was shortened for something theatrical, especially when you see a picture of it on a person without any proper undergarments.

*Forehead smack*

Although you can see how the length is *now* proportionate. The back story to this picture is this dress was allegedly was worn as a wedding dress in the 1860's by this woman's great great great grandmother, or something or that sort. It's plausible to me that this could have been a wedding dress, but certainly not in the 1860's. I've heard some researchers say that family stories are the hardest ones to believe, because stories and dates can easily be twisted through the years. Especially if the story skipped a generation. Something like this:

Gen. #1: This dress belonged to my grandmother. She was married in 1848.
Gen. #3: This dress belonged to my grandmother; I can't remember the date she was married, it might have been in the 1860's.
Gen. #5: This dress belonged to my grandmother, who was married in the 1860's and because it's been in the family for so long it must have some importance. Therefore I assume this must have been her wedding dress.
The other reason family heirlooms are tough is because if the garment was donated to the museum, the museum is obligated to include any information they provide, even if incorrect. And telling someone that they are wrong about a family heirloom is also a sticky spot, so shutting up and just putting a really broad date range like Nineteenth century appeases everyone.

The sleeves are open, meant to be worn with undersleeves (supposedly these ones); the silk on the underpart of the sleeve doesn't actually reach the armscye, but a patch of cotton is sewn and the sleeve cap covers it. The strips sewn onto the edge of the sleeve and cap are of blue silk velvet.
I like how the above picture shows the exact blue in the fabric in the upper right, by the pleats.
Upper portion of the sleeve.

The skirt is bag-lined with a really small turned hem and a braid running around the edge. It's now occurring to me that this dress might have had, at one point, a flounce of some sort running around the bottom that would have lengthened it considerably, but I don't remember there being any evidence of anything being removed. Then again, I didn't spend a lot of time on the skirt.

Now for the research: in order to date this dress, I'm looking at a few key things that stand out to me:

-The open 3/4 length sleeves, and the cap on top.
-The dropped waist
-The pleated front
-The shot silk (normally color doesn't come into account at all, but shot silk was just enough of a fad in the 1840's that I'm using that)

First the sleeves. I found evidence of open sleeves just barely coming in in 1846, but they were just short of full length and not open at all. You might describe them as a "funnel sleeve"; just looking at at original, it might be easy to say something like, "this lady must have had slightly short arms". I couldn't find any fashion plates until 1848 that looked even close to the shape I was looking for, but 1849 and 1850 were much closer.

1848 Godeys Fashion Plate; this sleeve is considerably longer and less open.

1848 Les Modes Parisiennes. The dress on the left has open sleeves with undersleeves, while the dress on the right has closed, straight sleeves, so sort of a cross-over going on. All fashion plates prior to 1847 with open sleeves are barely open, so rather unlikely.
This 1848 fashion plate is much more open that the last plate, so obviously there is a range of what could have been worn. 

1849 Godeys Fashion plate. The shape is much closer to this dress than any other open sleeves from previous years. 

1850 Le Follet

There comes a point, when dating garments, that the date it was probably made and the years it could have been worn are a bit of a gray area. To me, the overall flavor and attitude of the dress match 1847-49, but the style of dress technically isn't out of fashion until around 1851. Even though there is a fair amount of guesswork when dating garments, taking into account how specific the dress is can give you a good idea of how broad of a range it might have been worn.  For example: I'm making a dress, and I want it to be conservative so it doesn't fall out of fashion too quickly. I would be more likely to choose a conservative color, and made it in a style that was less specific. If I want a dress that is more fashionable, I'll make it as current as possible with the intention of only wearing it a couple years. This dress has enough key points that show that it was definitely fashionable, and therefore would have been discarded and replaced with something current, so erring on the side of cutting off the end of the year range is not out of the question.

Now I noticed that most of the dresses that had open sleeves between 1847-1850 did NOT have caps on the top, but decorative caps did seem to be commonplace on straight sleeves. At first I thought this might have been more of a personal preference thing, but after looking at a number of extants I saw many different types of caps encompassing many different sleeve styles.

This dress is almost identical in design, except with gathers instead of pleats and a round waist instead of pointed. From August Auctions

c. 1845-50, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

An earlier example; these are a good example of the earlier open sleeve, which show up on occasion between 1844-47 before becoming more commonplace. c. 1844, Museum at FIT

As for the pleating down the front, those are sometimes difficult to spot in fashion plates, although different variations of controlled shirring, pleating, and even creative methods like a honeycomb pattern were used very often.

1849, Ladies Cabinet

1851 Le Moniteur de la Mode

As to color, it is difficult to say exactly when shot silk went out of fashion. For those of you that don't know, shot (or changeable, I can't discern if shot and changeable are different) silk is a silk that has a different color warp from the weft. It was very common to have two violently opposing colors, which leaves the overall effect rather muddy, but iridescent from certain angles.

I search every Godeys magazine within this narrowed search range for "shot silk". In reference to dresses, it was mentioned quite a lot in descriptions and in the general fashion column until abruptly in 1852, it is declared quite out of fashion.

Here is an excerpt from a humorous story called "Sketches from Real Life" published in the 1847 Godeys. In it, the main character and a Mrs. Dawkins are discussing how Mrs. Dawkins' son (called Jeemes) is in love with the main character's cousin Judy (called Nabby) and discussing what she should wear in order to appear to her advantage.

"But here comes Nabby with her changeable silk on. It's my mind for her to wear that. It's one her Grandmarm Dawkins gave her. I took a mighty fancy to it the first time I ever see the old lady wear it. Jest examine it; you'll parcieve that the warp is a bright yaller; e'en jest an orange color-and that the fillin' is a dark blue. Now, if I could have my choice, I would ruther by one half have it than Mrs. Feeswind's tarnaltane."
"I like the stuff the ground's made on well enough," said Nabby, "but I don't like the set on't. Do you Hepsey?"
"The waist is not quite long enough for the fashion," said I.
"That's nothin'," said Mrs. Dawkins, "Nabby never looked well in a long waist and never will."

In October of 1851 Godeys, it describes a dress "One of the most elegant dresses we have seen is a Jasper silk (shot with seven different colors, but so blended that they seem one soft shade of violet)..."

While in 1852 Godeys, it says this:

"Some of the plainer, or less expensive fall silks are in graduated stripes, shot or changeable fabrics being entirely out of vogue."

Which brings me to my last dating point - dropped waists. Thus far, we've already heard in 1847 that dropped waists were fashionable from the story. In 1850, we hear ".....made with full skirts, sleeves gathered at the wrists, and infants (gathered) waists, corded with silk, and gathered full with a straight belt. No point whatever......the waist cannot be too long from the arm to the belt, but the length is not increased at the bodice." However, there are plenty of fashion plates that refute the idea that round waists were universal. Looking at fashion plates is completely misleading, and the exact intention of waist placement is hard to tell, partially because magazine figures weren't even close to accurately proportioned to begin with. So I'm going to turn to another textual (exact date known) source: paintings (you may need to zoom into the painting to see what I'm talking about).

Katherine Mary Webb Palmer, 1846

Another 1846 dress, with a decidedly natural waist. Dona Marie-Louise Ferdinand de Bourbon, by Franz-Xavier Winterhalter, 1846.
While the point on this one is extreme, the waist is also at a natural placement. Queen Isabella II of Spain, by Federico de Madrazo, 1849

From what I'm gathering....personal preference was everything. A lot of overlapping dates on when waists were dropped, and in different contexts. And then I realize....I don't remember the exact provenance of this dress. Where it came from, etc. All the people that could afford an expensive portrait were in Europe. We have a couple expensive Winterhalter paintings of Spanish and Austrian royalty, and that hardly seems relevant.

So hitting a brick wall on the dropped waist, but the overall idea that I'm getting is that long-waisted dresses were a decidedly 1840's idea, so I'm still sticking with my 1848-49 original creating date.

Another interesting tidbit that I discovered in a copy of the 1850 Godeys Magazine, June, in the advice and questions column towards the back. Here is what it says:

"Some excellent friend lady friend has asked of us the meaning of a term prefixed to our fashion plates, and, as the request is a fair one, we shall take pleasure in defining the precise definition of Americanized as applied in the modes which we give.
In the first place, American ladies have not yet given up waists of a respectable and natural size, a part of the figure the French artistes des modes sometimes omit altogether, if we accept a faint shadowy line connecting the bust and skirt. Again, our ladies like a little more drapery than the Parisians consider in good taste, and it is therefore necessary to add sleeves and corsages to some of the costumes that are otherwise graceful and pretty. These are two of the principal items; and, as we have matters of more general interest to discuss, we leave the subject for the present to our friend's kindly consideration."

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