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A young girl's dress, c1790-1810. Is it? Let's be costume detectives!

Book references used in this research:

'Children's Costume in England' Phillis Cunnington & Anne Buck. 1965 A & C Black Ltd.

'English Women's Costume in the Nineteenth Century' C. Willett Cunnington. Dover Publications. 1937

'Costume in Detail 1730-1930' Nancy Bradfield. George G Harrap & Co Ltd. 1968

'The Art of Dress' Jane Ashelford. The National Trust. 1996.

'What Clothes Reveal' Linda Baumgarten. Yale University Press/ Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 2002

'18th Century Embroidery Techniques' Gail Marsh. Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications. 2006

'Embroidered with White' Heather Toomer. Heather Toomer Antique Lace Publications. 2008.

'White-embroidered Costume Accessories, the 1790's to 1840's.' Heather Toomer, as above. 2013.

Note: All images used in this Blog are for research purposes only and are fully referenced. All books mentioned above are highly recommended by this author!

I have often mused about writing a book called 'The Costume Detective'. Given that there is a DIY costume making company of the same name, I doubt I would get away with it. Actually I probably never will write that book. I abuse the English use of grammar horribly. I like to write as if I am chatting with you, and thus break all the rules of grammar. Writing 'proper' English would be very tiresome at my age!

But if I did, this garment would be my ideal subject. Whilst others [most] marvel at finery and luxury, I am really most interested in construction. A method of pleating, a row of gathers, intrigue me far more than the finest silks and gold thread - in fact, gold thread interests me only by the method used to attach it to the fabric!

So here is my perfect piece. A mystery garment with a story and provenance that just didn't seem quite right.

In your own family, do you have members who tend to embellish a story? I have been known to do this, just to keep my audience attentive. But I try to be very truthful with textiles or we learn nothing. Sometimes though, a family will pass textiles down through the generations, and each time the 'story' of it is told, the detail becomes slightly less accurate. 'Very old' becomes 'extremely old'. 'Extremely old' suddenly has a date attached to it and before you know it, the provenance is - well - to be questioned at the very least. And all the fault of 'aunt Ada' who really did mean well!

The garment was selling at an auction house. Unable to attend, my decisions to bid were all based on less than clear images.

Here, the original auction image shows a note, pinned in two places, and attached to the fabric of the piece upside down!

As the high bidder, I arranged for the garment to be shipped to me - all I could see on the note was the year, c1750, and the title; 'An over-dress'.

Between the sale date and the shipping, the note was lost. I am still trying to track it down, but despite turning the image around and enlarging it, I could not make out any more of the detail in the hand penned description.

But as soon as the garment arrived, I questioned the detail of the note.

So, our task here is;

Could it date to the circa 1750's? And what is an over-dress? Never heard of it!

Could it date to the c1750's?

Most unlikely, in my view. The garment is made of muslin, which I think may be linen muslin, although it does not feel particularly cool to the touch. It is beautifully tamboured all over, with a design of wild flowers - briar roses, carnations & fushia I think, within large continuous scrolls throughout. The flower heads are closely drawn thread - very nicely worked. However, whitework of the mid 18th Century is still very densely embroidered, whilst this pattern still being large scale, but light and airy.

Do read Toomer's earlier book shown above, where it is clear that designs from the 1760's onward become far less dense than earlier in the Century.

The design of the embroidery is therefore the most obvious hint that the provenance date may be incorrect. But it could still be later in the 18th Century because the flowers are so typical of the second half, possibly 1770-80's.

The next consideration when trying to establish a date is that the garment could be re-modelled from earlier fabric. Close examination of the whole piece shows that the decoration at the seams of the garment is beautifully matched, and there is no evidence at all of unpicked seams - a tell-tale sign of re-worked clothing.

This is a photograph of one of the side seams - see how closely the embroidered pattern has been matched with the two pieces of fabric? One rarely see's this on a re-modelled garment. There is simply not enough fabric in an unpicked dress to be able to match the patterns.

This tells us that the fabric and the garment are most likely contemporary to each other.

The 1750's provenance is fading away and becoming most unlikely!

We can turn with confidence to the second half of the 18th Century and now start to ask -

Is it an over-dress?

So, we are now in the reign of George lll, [1760-1820]. We consider that the embroidery is true to the 18th Century. But the provenance say's it is an over-dress. What could that be?

I have found a small sketch of an over-dress in Toomer's later book, on page 48/2013. It is a fashion plate which dates to around 1799, and shows just the upper view of a lady wearing a robe 'worn beneath an over-robe with an even lower neckline' Toomer, Plate II.37, page 48. But as far as the fashion plate shows the detail, the over-robe is open fronted so that the gown below is displayed as a petticoat would be earlier in the 18th Century. My garment, although with no fastenings below the waist, meets edge to edge at the opening. Not at all the same as an open fronted robe.

During the reign of George lll, there are a few garments of simple form, such as this one.

First, there is the bedgown.

The bed gown was not just worn for sleeping. It was a casual garment that was also worn at home, for example, first thing in the morning & for chores.

Then in the late 18th Century there is an open robe, gathered at the bodice and open down the front.

The garment we are studying is for a young girl, possibly a teenager. It is too short to be for a fully grown woman. So, the third possibility is that it could be a simple dress, for a child or young person.

Could it be a Bed Gown?

Bed Gowns were worn by all generations, and their main design was to provide comfort. Loosely cut and simple in style, they are much remarked on in journals of the time. However, because they were regularly laundered and worn again, very few exist today. Baumgarten has written a most helpful article about bed gowns, on page 123/2002.

She tells us that researchers have had to make reproduction bed gowns, based on contemporary written instructions in how to cut and make them! The instructions are dated first, in 1789 and then in 1808. What we see when they are made up, are garments very similar to this, with slight differences in the neckline and sleeve shapes, but made in very much the same way as the traditional English smock [see my blog on the subject], ie. of basic squares, rectangles and triangles. And, important to our research, the underarms have a triangular gusset to provide movement and comfort.

The picture above is of two infant shirts, not bed gowns, but we can clearly see the triangular gussets inserted under the arms. Our garment does not have them. [Image from Baumgarten, page 159/2002]

Our garment also has a most lovely feature that suggests it could not be worn in bed very comfortably. Each shoulder of the garment has a lovely, hand made linen button.

Why would a single button sit on the shoulder? I looked inside, and there is a fine loop of cord sewn underneath the button. Curious.

However, if you take the cord and pull it down through the sleeve, back up on the outside to the button on the shoulder, here's what effect you achieve:

Wonderful! A perfectly plain short sleeve becomes a fashion feature! This is not a bed gown!

Can it be an Open Robe?

In the late 18th Century, one version of an Open Robe is very similar to the Round Gown, except that it does not have overlapping fronts. Instead, the front ends meet in the centre to create an effect very similar to an Over-Dress.

Here, Gail March shows a sketch of a late 18th Century Open Robe:

This lovely gown, shown on page 157/2006, has very similar embroidery in style, although on this particular piece it is crewel work.

Both the sketch here and our garment have linen ties that gather both the whole neck edge and below the shallow bodice.

However, there are important differences:

First, the sketch shows that the open robe has a distinct border to the opening edges and the hem, so that attention is drawn to the extra decoration. Our garment does not.

More importantly, whilst our garment can be gathered up all around the join between bodice and skirt, it is actually permanently gathered in finely stroked tiny gathers, to one side only. This, therefore, has to be the back of the garment, where the opening is.

See below:

These gathers are fixed in place, and are only on one side of the garment - the opening side.

Although the entire bodice to skirt seam can be gathered all around with the use of linen ties, it can also be quite flat at the other side as shown here:

To the gathered side of our garment, there are three ways to fasten the opening, which stretches from upper neck to ankles.: First, the ties at the neck. Second, the ties under the bodice. And then, a single button, covered in tamboured muslin, [so, the garment fabric] and button hole, which are just a few inches below the lower bodice ties. The button & buttonhole are the final fastening, at just about natural waist level. From that point on, the entire garment is completely open!

For all of these reasons, we know this is not an Open Robe. The opening is at the back and not meant to be on special show at all.

Finally then, can it be a simple dress?

This beautiful portrait, although a little late in date for our discussion, was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence 1817-18 and shows a lady and two of her children, all dressed in the most relaxed and comfortable clothing. [See Ashelford, p183/1996]

Frocks and dresses for infants and small children are well recorded and do come up at specialist auctions, but by the time of the late 18th Century, boys were out of frocks and into skeleton suits by around the age of 5 years. Therefore only girls wore these simple frocks when of an older age.

The image shown left is from Baumgarten, page 173/2002, and shows back and front views of a little girl's frock, in the usual block printed cotton, dating to c1810.

But for teenage girls? Heavens! Girls would be close to marriage once teenagers; would they really be still wearing gowns with completely open backs?

Cunnington & Buck come to our rescue. They tell us that, in the later 18th Century: 'Frocks were still usually open down the back for children.' Page 142/1965.

They then quote a passage written by a child in the family of 'Mrs Papendick' in 1789:

'My sister being now in her fifteenth year and very much grown, we planned a trifling change to her dress. Pretty printed cambric muslins made round were to be her gowns, instead of frocks open behind in the skirts'

So it is possible that our garment is a dress for a teenager. Baumgarten adds that 'straight pins were still used' OUCH!

We are now getting very close to naming our garment. It is probably a dress, with a completely open skirt to the back. It is certainly far larger than for a child and therefore rare. But the age of it is still to be determined, with the fabric being so true to the late 18th Century, but the shape more akin to the early 19th.

By examining the garment thoroughly, the underarms are of note because of their particular cut. I have mentioned the underarms in discussing bed gowns, and found these to be different.

Willet Cunnington talks of the 'Vertical Epoch', associated with architecture and design of the time. Amongst the bodices of the Vertical Epoch, he shows exactly the same as our garment at the foot of page 29/1937:

On this apron-fronted dress, the underarm has an insertion piece of fabric, with two seams to join it to the main dress. This is exactly the same as the underarm of our garment. This dress is of the early Vertical Epoch ie c1800-1810.

However, more interesting in terms of date, Bradfield has a gown with just the same underarm cut, dated to c1806-9, but with an inner stamp showing the lady owner's name and an earlier date of 1795. Page 91-2/1968. Bradfield's sketch is of a closed skirted gown for a woman, but still fastening to the back. Bradfield's sketch also shows that the gown has the same linen hand made buttons, although not placed on the shoulders as in our garment.

In my opinion, we are now almost full circle in showing that, despite the note of provenance, we have shown that this is indeed a dress for a teenager dating between 1790-1810. In my opinion, the embroidery to the fabric still indicates it was made towards the earlier date.

More importantly, I think this dress shows a fascinating social norm. That the graduation from childhood to womanhood was not the gentle and gradual process we know today. It was far more sudden at the end of the 18th Century. One minute a child, wearing skirts perfectly acceptably open to the back for all the world to see. Then, suddenly a woman, ready for marriage and childbirth.

And all with a stitching of a seam to the back of the dress!

End note: I searched and searched for a gown with the sleeves tied up with a button and loop such as this one. No luck at all. Then, Cunnington and Buck and a quote from c1810:

'For most of the Century short sleeves might be tied up with a ribbon passing under them to tie in a bow outside on the shoulder' Page 149/1965.

Hurray! So the tie and button would be covered with ribbon at the sleeve feature, no doubt to match the sash that would be worn at the extremely shallow bodice. Pity those lovely hand made buttons were to be covered over!

Thank you for reading!

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