Friday, August 4, 2017

#3: Extant Garment: 1861-65 silk dress

The next dress was dated to just 1860's, but I'm guessing it was made between 1861-1865 (read to the end for dating). The textile director told me that she believes it was a mourning dress. It is made of a very thin black silk, sort of like a tissue weight taffeta.
Photo Credit: Idaho Historical Museum

Photo Credit: Idaho Historical Museum

Photo Credit: Idaho Historical Museum

These were seriously super-strength buttonholes.
Photo Credit: Idaho Historical Museum
In the back, the pleats face towards the back; in the front, the pleats also face towards the back, which is a little less common than front-facing, but still relatively normal.  Photo Credit: Idaho Historical Museum

This dress was a little confusing, because of it's size. It was quite small, but it seems like a good guess that this dress was worn by a short lady. The total length was 38'' in the front, and the skirt circumference was only 115''. The modifications are very good and not theatrical. The skirt has a strip of about 2 1/2'' sewn onto the bottom that is discreet, but also wouldn't have been a part of the original design, and it also feels to be of a slightly different quality than the rest of the dress. The hem facing was only maybe 4'' high, and was of some sort of course brown stuff that almost felt like horsehair.
Photo Credit: Idaho Historical Museum
Photo Credit: Idaho Historical Museum

The inside lining also showed that the darts had originally been in a different location by the fading patterns, and then ripped out and moved over. Again, it was skillfully done, and despite the fading and stitch marks on the inside the outside showed no wear or stitch marks. I don't know how they managed that! How large the first darts were is difficult to discern. I did not get a very good picture of the fading, sorry!
You can also see the two different colors of lining.
Photo Credit: Idaho Historical Museum

The bodice closes up the front with functional buttons, but also has a row of hooks and eyes starting mid-bust going down to the waist to stabilize the whole thing. The shaped coat sleeves are unlined, and the only trim on the entire dress is a cuff-shaped piece sewn to just the outside portion of the dress with narrow braiding, also in black. The bodice was lined with two different shades of brown; the darker one in the front portion was twill, and the lighter color in the back was a plain weave that was either polished or plain, I can't remember.
Photo Credit: Idaho Historical Museum

A few construction peculiarities: the back curved detail seen on many dresses is actually a faux back; the entire back is cut as one piece, and then folded and top-stitched to appear to be three separate pieces. You can read more about how to do this in The Dressmaker's Guide. However, with this dress they didn't even bother to make a crease, there is simply a line of stitching! You can see in the large picture of the back how without the fold, it doesn't stand out quite so much; whether the maker was simply inexperienced, lazy, or pressed for time we will never know.
Photo Credit: Idaho Historical Musuem

The skirt has an excellent example of a dog-leg closure, and that striped fabric is a very short section of waistband that isn't visible from the outside. The skirt was attached straight to the bodice, except for a short portion that was attached to just the scrap band. The dress has piping on the neck edge, armscye, the bottom edge of the bodice and on the bottom edge of the sleeve.
Photo Credit: Idaho Historical Museum

The only thing we really have to work with is the sleeves, and the skirt. This style of sleeve is called a coat sleeve; a coat sleeve is characterized by being made of an outer piece and an inner piece sewn together in a curved shape. When the dress is hung up on a hanger, the sleeves will "shake hands". It's simple and tidy, and because it lays very flat it's a good base for a lot of fancy trim. Or, simply no trim. 
Mrs. James Guthrie, c. 1864-66, by Lord Frederick Leighton

The problem with coat sleeves, is that they are difficult to distinguish from a regular straight sleeve in a drawing; in photographs, it's pretty easy to see. The other problem with coat sleeves is that it seems as though fashion plates may have considered them "boring"; because of how many extant dresses have them, and how many women were photographed in them, we know they were very common. But based on a fashion might not even know anyone wore them. Fashion plates still show them, but they generally are shown with undersleeves during the earlier 1860's. Like the previous pagoda sleeve fashion, except less droopy and still having a curved shape.

1861 Journal des Demoiselles; this particular example is an earlier style of coat sleeve that was only around for a few years, between 1860-1862. Sort of a cross between a coat sleeve, and a bishop sleeve. It has a lot of fullness at both the shoulder and the wrist, but unlike a plain bishop sleeve it has some shaping to make it curve inwards. 
1862 Petersons fashion plate; this is a good example of an open coat sleeve. It's very tailored, but still has a curved shape even though it's open. In 1862, we see examples like this, but also some that are larger and more open, but this was sort of the new sleek look. Some people still prefer to call all styles of open sleeve a pagoda sleeve. I prefer to think of a pagoda sleeve as having either no shaping on either seam, or some shaping on the front seam; open coat sleeves have shaping on the front and back seam, to keep it tailored and curved. To give it an exact title may be beside the point.
1863 Le Follet; this is the closest shape and size to the extant. It is a closed coat sleeve, meaning tapered to the wrist, and it's worn with cuffs instead of undersleeves. This is my no means cut and dry on the dating; there are dozens of examples from before and after this date that look just like this. It's a bit generic. Within the realm of photographs, we see a lot more variation on coat sleeve size, shape, and style than in fashion plate. Most photographs don't have a date, though.

1865 Les Modes Parisiennes; French fashion plates like this one were often recycled through American newspapers, but often 6 months to a year later! So this one may have not even made it to the states until 1866, if at all. The other fashion plates except for the Petersons follow this general rule as well. This style of coat sleeve is much more tailored, even from the extant dress, more common from 1864 all the way to 1870.

We see a few examples of coat sleeves in 1861, but they are increasingly more and more common each year, and are still fashionable even up until the early 1870's, although by then the shoulders were a bit less dropped.

The only other thing that we have to work with is the skirt. The skirt is constructed with plain rectangles, with the fullness about evenly distributed, with a little more towards the back. Right around 1864, most skirts are very commonly made with gores, although some women had been wearing gored skirts since 1861. The skirts are sewn with an angle so there is less fullness in the front at the very top. By 1865, they are gored enough so that there are almost no pleats in front. This skirt shape could have been worn as far as 1865, but even in that year it would have started looking a little outdated and would probably have been ripped apart to re-shape the skirt. 
1861 Journal des Demoiselles; this skirt shape is more generally round all the way around...
c. 1865, sold at auction.
While we don't know the exact date of this dress, the broad stripes show the gores I'm talking about. Goring the skirt takes out fulness at the top, which gives it a distinctly triangular shape at the top. The black extant dress uses straight rectangle panels, instead of triangle panels like this striped example. 

So between the sleeves and the skirt, it probably would have been constructed between 1861-1864, but could have been worn up until 1865-1866. It's also possible that it could have been made a year or two earlier, and then the sleeves redone in this year range. 

I also want to talk a little bit about who might have worn this dress before I go into mourning, because at a glance you might guess that it could have been worn by a child. The fullness is very narrow (115'' circumference), it's very short, etc. However (and this is a big however)....the difference between children's fashion and adult fashion is extreme. Children's dress, usually without exception during the 1860's, was not darted and boned. It also always closes up the back. The exception to this is sometimes you see pictures and fashion plates with buttons going down the front, but because there is no crease it is purely decorative, but even this is relatively uncommon. 

That being said - it could have been worn by a young woman who grew an inch or two in a couple places, but because most women stop growing between makes more sense that it was a hand-me-down. As a grown woman, you don't accidentally make it too know exactly how long to make it. So this dress is most definitely a hand-me-down, or even possibly sold and bought second-hand. That also explains the dart placement; while I can't tell whether the old darts were larger or smaller, different body shapes need different placement, so I'm not even sure that matters.

Now, the final question: mourning or no?

While this dress is very plain, and possibly boring, this is a good example of what an average lady might have a best dress, or possibly just a conservative nicer dress. It fulfills what every magazine of the time describes as the dress for any occasion: black was considered to be in good taste, because it was never too flashy. And being over-dressed was, in several different magazine's opinions, vulgar and having good taste in dress often meant being cautious about sending the wrong message about your station through excessive dress.

An 1860's lady, in mourning

1860 Petersons:

"All the lighter kinds of mourning are a good deal affected by the changes in fashion; but the deepest style of black undergoes but little alteration, except in the shape of a bonnet, the cut of a sleeve, or the length of a sleeve. The material used is bombazine, and the trimming must consist only of folds of heavy English crepe. Broad folds of crepe may trim the skirt of the dress, but are not now considered as indespensible to deep mourning as formerly." 1.

Later in the same article -

"Where a less rigid kind of mourning is required, a fine black alpaca, or double width delaine, is worn.....with this dress, although black collar and sleeves are generally worn, still white crape, or tarleton collars, and sleeves are admissable. Black barege and grenadine are always used for summer wear in black, but the must be made very plainly and invariable worn over a black skirt and body lining".

"A still lighter kind of mourning is of black silk, trimmed with crape, or, if wished less deep, with black gauze ribbon, etc. The silk must be of a dead black and quite lustreless."

"After this stage of black, the style varies according to the fancy of the wearer. Small black and white plaids, purple and black, gray silks, lilac and white, are all worn for various depths of this stage of mourning, it is almost impossible to particularize the various combinations of colors, or the styles of dress. Much more trimming is allowable; lace or worked collars may be worn, gloves may be of lilac, gray or pearl...."
1860-65 dress that is a perfect example of half-mourning. From the Les Arts Decoratifs

So there is a common theme among the first few examples: BLACK. And not just any black, but things like dead black, or lustreless black. Crepe, bombazine, and barege in black colors actually absorb light; the reason being that they are made of wool or wool/silk mixture. A women in mourning is a bit like looking at a black hole. This dress is too shiny to be considered proper for full mourning; however, it is acceptable for half-mourning.
Two 1860's ladies, in deep mourning.

1861 Godeys "In first mourning, black crape collars and cuffs on grenadine or crepe sleeves will still continue to be worn. The English fashion of adding a gold thread to the applique pattern in crepe , may find favor in New York, and at the South, but scarcely in neat, plain Philadelphia, where mourning usually is mourning, and not a mass of crepe bows, bugles, and tinsel."

1862 Petersons; there was a pattern originally included, and while this wrapper isn't specifically for mourning, they give the suggestion that you make the dress in black delaine, with the front made in black silk quilted in white for mourning.

January 1862, from Englishwomen's Domestic Magazine; in the comments on these dresses, they give suggestions on how both can be adapted to mourning by making them in a combination of black, gray, purple and white. Because women in full mourning were not expected to attend social functions like balls or evening parties, we can assume they mean half mourning.

Even though we now have evidence that this dress is appropriate for half-mourning....did it have to be? The answer is no! Black was considered fashionable and appropriate for almost every occasion, and magazines often give many examples of fashionable black, gray, and purple clothing with no mention of mourning of any kind. 
1861 Portrait of a Lady, by Ferdinand Krumholz. 

How do we know the above lady isn't in half-mourning? She has a white collar, and if you look closely you will see that she has a green ribbon on her left side. Women in full or half mourning were expected to wear caps on their head that were usually white. On her right side, look even closer and you will! This is simply a very conservative dress. 

BONUS: A recipe from Petersons for how to re-blacken faded mourning clothes. "Black reviver, for faded mourning dresses, black coats, etc. 1. Boil in two pints of water down to one, two oz. of Aleppo galls, in powder, two oz. of logwood, one oz. of gum arabic, then add one oz of sulphate of iron. This may be evaporated to a powder. 2. Galls, eight oz; logwood, green vitriol, iron fillings, sumach, of each one oz; vinegar, two pints. 2

1. 1860 Petersons, pg. 86

2 1860 Petersons, pg. 406
For further reading on mourning, here is a podcast with Samantha McCarty:


  1. Very interesting- I do find stuff about mourning very intriguing. So many rules! I also enjoy all those fabric names, even though I haven't a clue what most of them mean. It reminds me of reading 'Little Women' as a child, and assuming that 'tarlatan' was some kind of tartan...

    1. A good place to get started is by referencing C. Willet Cunnington's English Women's Fashion in the Nineteenth Century. There is an extensive dictionary of unusual fabric terms, although the explanations are not terribly exact. Plus no pictures, so to find a modern example that exactly matches only going off of that would be a shot in the dark.