Here is a rather lovely and decidedly jaunty dress from the collection. This one is constructed in two pieces – skirt and jacket – and is made of a fantastic striped silk in turquoise and blue, lined in cotton. There is very little information about where this came from or who wore it but I love this dress. Even hanging on a dress dummy it is full of life and you can see the bustle showing at the back, very typical of the time. The catalogue entry dates it at 1870s and I think it could be early 1870s or 1880s. (Fashionable dress in the mid-1870s saw the bustle drop down nearer the level of the train, though of course we can’t be sure when the dress was actually worn). The dress has no train so we might infer it was meant for walking although sometimes the skirts of these dresses were so tight and encumbered with petticoats it made walking a little difficult!
This dress has other practicalities that are hidden from the outside. I must admit, my favourite appliance is my washing machine. Keeping the household’s clothes and linens clean is annoying enough with one, without one it’s an ongoing, massive chore. The owner of this dress wouldn’t have sent this to the mangle, it would have been sponged clean but it’s still quite a job.
The jacket of this dress is fitted with underarm dress protectors, making the care of the dress much less onerous. These pads could be removed, and fresh ones stitched in whenever necessary, keeping the dress clean.
I suspect the same could be said of the lace at the cuffs. This dress would not have been worn next to the skin anyway as a few layers of undergarments would also have protected the silk. A neck frill or possibly a blouse or shirtwaist may have been worn under the jacket.
We have a few photos of the inside of the dress and you can see how the dress has been altered and mended over time. You can also see how very different the finish is on the inside of the dress – very common in these garments, but it can surprise modern sensibilities. We often look to the inside of our clothes to see how well they are finished, it’s a sign of quality. It wasn’t so important here, and as we have explored, the owner would be unstitching and restitching onto the dress all the time – further changing the finish.
You can see here the elegant bustle is formed by these cotton tapes which gather the fabric tightly on the inside, making the fashionable bulge on the outside.
You can also see what looks like old stitch lines on either side of the patch of blue fabric on the underarm of the dress. This dress was used and altered over the years. No wonder it was saved as something special!
Because of the blue stripes this dress makes me think of the seaside and I can absolutely see it walking up and down on the front, the wearer protected from sun and wind with gloves, parasol and hat. In the absence of information in the catalogue I like to think this was worn by an energetic woman who combined common sense with a flair for elegance and a sense of fun.
By Margaret Barratt – Visitor Assistant