Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Analyzing a Victorian Era Gown

Dating and identifying owners of 19th-century clothing can be difficult without documentation from individuals or descendants who know the history. When the Hayes Center received the George Buckland Collection from Jacksonville, Florida, a number of pieces of clothing were included in the donation. Among the items was an elegant silk dress. When it was made and for who remained a mystery until intern Alexandra Hutchings analyzed and researched its fabric and style. Below is Alex's analysis and description.

A one-piece elegant gold-colored dress features a fitted bodice and a train skirt, originally called a “mermaid’s tail,” a style that dates to approximately 1880. The bulk of the fabric used for this dress is silk. Hand-embroidered cream-colored silk flowers and leaves adorn the entire hem, skirt front, and bodice.

A matching gold velvet ribbon is sewn into the bottom of the bodice and wraps around to the back to form a bow with long ribbon tails. Cream-colored cording is used as lacing for the bodice front. Hand-sewn openings for the cording feature the same embroidery floss as the flowers and leaves. The sleeves puff slightly at the shoulder tapering down tightly at the wrist, ending with 1½” upturned cuffs.

Beneath the embroidered flowers of the skirt at the hem is ruching approximately 5½” in width. The lace placed on cream-colored silk on the front of the skirt gives the illusion of a complete under petticoat, but the lace in reality covers only the space visible to the eye. The same lace adorns the collar, cuffs, and shoulder areas.

There is a balayeuse or “dust ruffle” made of heavily pleated strips of fabric serving as a hem guard, with one ruffle in the front and three separate ruffles in the back under the “mermaid’s tail.” The dust ruffles are hand stitched loosely to a stiffer fabric perhaps for easy removal for washing.

Some of the manufactured items in this dress include: a belt secured on the inside back of the bodice to help with the weight of the garment. It includes a printed brand name, Cregmile Cincinnati. Quarter and half inch boning along with brass hook and eye closures were used in the bodice. Lace (different from the lace used on the bodice and front of skirt) found at the hem beneath the ruching of the skirt was also manufactured.

This gown has many qualities that fit the princess style dress dating from 1875 to 1881. The “mermaid’s tail” measures about 70” (evening gown length). The bustle, and the fitted and boned bodice are markers of the “princess style dress”.

The bulk of the dress was sewn by machine. However, the many finished edges were done by hand.

The overall appearance of this gown clearly emphasizes the hourglass shape.

A further search of the collection turned up two cabinet card images taken in Mora’s Studio at 707 Broadway in New York. One of the images was identified as “Elizabeth Huntington Rice, June 1881.” We later learned that Elizabeth Huntington married Brigadier General Edmund Rice, June 14, 1881 in Cincinnati, Ohio. We now know that the dress in our collection was Elizabeth Huntington’s wedding gown.

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