Object Biography 1840’s Pink Silk Dress

This 1840’s pink silk dress is from AU Theatre’s vintage stock.  the dress was bequeathed by former chair and costume design professor, Lois Garen from her personal antique clothing collection when she passed away in 1980.  The AU Theatre’s antique clothing is stored separately from the costume storage and is used for teaching examples for my Costume History and Costume Construction classes. The dress has water damage from the roof drainage flooding experienced when giant storms have hit the building.

The dress is hand stitched; the sewing machine had not been invented.  The gown equivalent to a modern size 2, the waist is 221/2″ , bust 31″, skirt length 43″ for a woman approximately 5’8″ tall. The gown would be worn over a corset and the skirt held out by as many as 6 petticoats, to achieve a soft, bell shape.  A chemise, worn directly on the body would protect the inner gown from body perspiration and oils. The dress is made of light pink changeable silk.  A design of blue roses is woven into the pattern.  The roses change colors tones  of blue, depending on the lighting.

The dress is lined with finely woven linen in the bodice, no lining in the skirt. An 8″ hem of blue polished cotton gives the hem protection from the elements. The same polished cotton is used for a hidden pocket in the right hand fold of the dress. The pleating of the skirt is cartridge pleating to the waist edge of the bodice.  This is formed by folding the waist edge of the material back, arranging it in close cartridge pleats (like the pleats on the sleeves of graduation robes) and sewing the top fold of each pleat to the bodice waistline.  The narrow piping hides the join of the skirt to the bodice.  The dress has the same piping in the shoulder seam for shape and durability.  The dress is trimmed at the neck, sleeve cap and bottom of sleeve bell with a pink scalloped manufactured trim.  The dress has 1/4″ steel boning in the seams.

The stitch used to construct the dress is a running stitch in pink silk in the skirt seams; the skirt is cut in lengths to allow the selvedge to be the finished edge.  There is a center back placket of self-silk for the gown’s closure.  The gown in closed by 16 manufactured hooks and eyes hidden in the placket. The bodice shape is obtained with bust pads, which hold out the upper part of the bodice, and achieve the sloped shoulder look.  The inner finishing of the bodice seams is in black cotton thread.  The gown does not show signs of alteration, which is of significance in antique garments.  The fabric is expensive and could have been made into another dress, or made for another wearer, but it is intact. The polished cotton in the hem still retains its sheen, so it has been laundered only a few times, if at all.

Why was the gown saved? It shows very little wear. There is water staining up the dress hem, as if the gown was worn through a deep puddle; however the silk is not dirty from wear.  Perhaps the gown was made for a special occasion and then saved, not given away, worn or remodeled.

As a costume design professor I rely on history to teach the construction of garments and base the design of costumes for productions on historic clothing silhouette. The beautiful draping of this gown is not available in books; there is very little information on garment construction of this period.  On a daily basis I teach students about garments, their history, and their significance.  The social culture of the world of this garment is gone, but the dress survives for students to see the intricate hand stitching someone labored hours to make.  the world of the theatre production is ephemeral, our productions last but a couple weeks.  This garment is here for us to study 170 years later, and practice some of the draping and sewing lessons the dress tells us.

1840’s day dress

Close up bodice

Inner bodice, detail side seam stitching bone attachment

Inside bodice, padding detail,, pleat stitching

Inside hidden pocket

Skirt cartridge pleating

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