Primary Research…

…at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the Valentine Richmond History Center.

My trip to the Smithsonian was everything I could have hoped for. Johann and I met with the curator of the division of home and community life, Dr Nancy Davis, who took us up to the fourth floor where the costume collection is kept.

There, she had prepared several dresses for us to see, several of which were extremely helpful, and one of which was a gold mine!

Most of the dresses were from the Cobb family, donated in the nineteenth century. These dresses were fascinating because they came from a family that wasn’t extremely wealthy who took every effort to reuse and piece fabric together in creative ways.

The first dress I looked at was this 1795-1825 blue plaid dress from the Cobb family donation. The fabric shows how economical the dressmaker (most likely the wearer herself) was. Do you see the slight difference in colour between the right and left side of the bodice? That’s not a trick of the light; the pattern isn’t matched up, so that there is less blue at the place the right side was cut than the left. A different technique was used in the lining: the left side was cut in one piece from side seam to center front; the right side was seamed at the half-way point. Not only was it seamed, but the stripe was in one piece vertical, in the other horizontal! These little details would not be noticeable to those who saw the dress being worn, only we who can scrutinize it appreciate the genius!

I learned a few things directly useful to my project. One question I had was how the lining front is supposed to close. This dress provided a possible answer: there are strings attached at the side seam at waist height that might have been tied at front to hold the flaps closed. The lining is separate from  the face fabric at front. It is attached at the armhole, side seams, and from the mid-shoulder and around the back of the neck. The front opening is made from a long dart with a tiny rolled edge; drawstrings at the neck and waist create fullness in the fabric that hides the gap. The waist seam is much larger than any other seam, which would help the dress lie smoothly against the body.

The second dress I looked at was a 1799 red wool wedding dress. This dress dispels a few myths about wedding dresses. They haven’t always been white! That tradition started with Queen Victoria in the 19th century. Also, they weren’t always made of delicate chiffon and lace. The poorer brides picked practical fabrics for economy and because they wore their wedding dresses after the wedding! Over and over and over again. Here’s the proof: this dress has a million holes in it, some as big as my hand. All the holes have been carefully patched in the same red wool fabric. This dress was worn and probably worked in for years.

The dress had a bodice lining similar to the blue plaid. However, the dart closure is in the back, and there is only one drawstring at the neck.

The final Cobb family dress I saw was a yellow open dress – this was the gold mine! I think this style of gown is what Polly is wearing in her portrait. I am so sad I don’t have a picture of this dress on the form (most institutions don’t allow publications of “unofficial” research photos so I won’t be posting mine), but I will try to describe it to you.The front is wrapped like Nora Waugh’s open gown, but does not have a lot of fullness in the bodice, and is completely flat in the front of the skirt. The back is gathered. A wide collar, as well as the rest of the neck and cuffs, are trimmed with a frill.

The most important discovery I made with this dress, and on the trip as a whole, is how Polly’s gown might have been fastened in the front. This dress has a dart opening like the others, but it is offset to the right in front to where the bodice crossover ends. The skirt is attached from the dart, around the back, and to the front wrap. The bottom part of the wrap becomes a kid of flap whose end is tied to a cord at the opposite side waist. The front wrap also has a cord which is tied to another just inside the front dart. I hope this is all clear, but if it’s not it will become clearer when I post my mockup pictures!

Next, I saw a white wedding dress from 1814. It was lovely, with beautiful details and pleats. The fabric was so sheer that the pleats created lines in the monochromatic fabric – all the brighter white on the dress in the picture below (except the floral embroidery) is simply doubled over fabric. Tiny little seam allowances add to the pleat lines. Lovely!

Finally, I looked at a cotton round robe from 1798. This dress put the idea into my head that the detail on Polly’s sleeve is probably pleating. The skirt was lined in what appears to be a modern addition. This has put the question into my head – were sheer dresses lined only in the bodice, or in the skirt as well? There is no evidence of skirt lining in the white wedding dress above.

A sweet detail: you can’t see it on the photograph, but there is ever-so-delicate embroidery running in lines up the entire skirt.

Thank-you Johann for making sure I got all the information I could! Also a big thanks to Nancy Davis for her time and invaluable insights!

Next, I ventured out alone to the local costume archive at the Valentine. Two employees, a technical assistant and summer intern, were kind enough to show me four dresses during.

One dress, a sheer muslin round gown from 1795-1800, was a great addition to my Smithsonian research. Again, I cannot post my research photos, so, imaginations: activate!

Imagine the blue plaid dress style, except with fabric was about the same weight as Polly’s dress.

Even with this light fabric, the skirt had no lining (it had the same type of bodice lining as I saw in the Smithsonian dresses). Was the linen shift under these translucent gowns enough to protect their modesty?!

The sleeves were surprising. They were quite long for being short – they looked like they would almost hit the elbow. My understanding has been that sleeves were almost always to the wrist or very short (like the final Smithsonian white dress). Perhaps this dress is an anomaly, or perhaps I just need to do more research! It is a wonderful clue to Polly’s dress, however. Her sleeves are most certainly not as short as was generally seen in the time, since the sleeve continues past her waist where the portrait is cut off. This previously led me to conclude that her sleeves were to the wrist. However, I haven’t seen pleats in the middle of a long sleeve, so the sleeves of the Valentine gown may provide an alternative. The sleeves were also lined, which I hadn’t seen before. This gave them more volume and made them less sheer.

Again I saw a wide waist seam, 1-5/8″ from the bodice, but this time the skirt layer had been cut away to a mere 1/8″.

The front opening was again a dart, but much longer than I saw before: from the waist it was 14″ where the blue plaid was 8″. The rolled edge here becomes a seam for the last 8″.

The lining in front had a very small cord basted along the top edge. I think it was used in lieu of pins or a cord at the side for a closure. I particularly like this method of lining closure, because it could be used as a drawstring to gather the lining and give the bodice added fullness.

I took careful notes on stitches. Skip this section if you are not as nerdy as me: most were 1/16″ (which will be so much fun when making the final dress). The front skirt was attached to the bodice with backstitch, the bottom of the drawstring casing was running stitch. The gathers were whip stitched through to the lining, and running stitched with a double thread through to the lining 1/8″ down. The pleats were 1/4″ wide, sewn with a running stitch. The hems were whip stitched. The edges were finished with a running stitch baste.

One final observation that made me very excited: the lining on this dress was a linen exactly the weight of linen I used to make the shift! Hooray! Confirmation I am getting things right!

In addition to the great fun, I gleaned so much useful information to use on Polly’s dress. This is really a case in point of why primary research is so important.


Go to next post: ‘New Mock-Up.’

Published in: on June 20, 2011 at 5:06 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. thank you for this post! as i was reading it i was asking myself, how did they do the stitches? i was wondering if they did something different. and then you answered my question. evidently, they knew which stitches would be necessary for the areas the fabric or seams had more stress on them. you descriptions were helpful. on the one dress, you mentioned the waist seam was larger 1 5/8 inches. since i am not quite sure of the dress, i was wondering about it. thoughts that came to my mind: if the hem was finished, then if for some reason the hem needed raised or lowered, for example the person the dress was made for was still young, or to pass on to some one else then that would be a good place to change it and hide imperfections with a ribbon or trim of sorts. another thought was if it was a way to make adjustments in case of pregnancy.
    how fortunate that you got to see these and handle them.

    • I am not sure the exact reason for the waist seam to be so large. I was thinking that it could be to make the waist lie flat – to counteract the tendency of so much fullness to pop outwards. The large waist seam was in every dress I looked at, which could be seen as evidence against it being a practice to provide this for future alterations. Also, it would be strange for there to be large seams for waist alterations, but tiny seam to prevent alterations everywhere else.

      Thanks so much for your continued interest, I love that someone else is as excited as me by the details 🙂

  2. i don’t know if you know of the website, Madame Guillotine. she went to Bath in England and was able to handle and photograph dresses, possibly of the same time frame. she shows the insides and out of them. she is on i thought it might be of assistance to you. it is under her older posts: Bath Fashion Museum 18th century Dresses March 31, 2011 and April 1, 2011. i hope this helps you. she is quick to reply if you wish to correspond. her site is loaded with dresses and jewelry info from various eras and times. beautiful.

    • This is fantastic! More evidence that there was no built-in skirt lining.

      It is great to see others doing (and blogging) about similar things! Thanks for the link, I now have another blog to follow for sure!

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