Saturday, September 7, 2013

Recent Investigations: How was this bustle dress worn?

The 'before' shot. Three pieces of netting made
into some kind of dress. Could be fabulous, but
it's hard to tell on the hanger. Scroll all the way
down for the after shot.
A couple of weeks ago I purchased a three-piece dress on an antiquing jaunt in Pennsylvania. At first glance on the hanger it looked like an early 20th-century gown because sheer gauzy white dresses were so big then, and the bodice lacked the fitted darts I would expect of a 19th-century garment. That was deceiving though, because it seemed to have a bustle skirt, which could make it at least 20 years older than I thought it was. But bustle dresses are usually tightly fitted with crazy boning and a tiny waist to go over an hour-glass corset; this had no seams to contour the bodice whatsoever. Fortunately, my shopping companion was a fellow costume enthusiast, so we held out all of the pieces, talked it through, and decided it was probably a bustle dress for a girl who had yet to develop the curves that would necessitate darts in the bodice. Had. To. Have. Obviously.

I don't have much experience with true bustle dresses though, so even after putting this find on a dress form, I am longing for an owner's manual. The three pieces are an underskirt, a bodice with attached bustle overskirt, and a sash. At first I thought I "got" everything except for what to do with the sash. I was so wrong. I had several questions, and in some cases, I still don't know the answer. Here are the questions I've been considering:

1) Exactly how old is this dress? My theory that it was bustle-era for a young girl was trumped when I discovered that it fit my adult dress form just fine- lady curves included. The netting material is stretchy, so the lack of fitted seams and darts wasn't helpful for dating at all. At first I thought the bustle was just a hint of volume as the popularity of the huge backside-shelf petered out, but once I realized how much I had to stuff up under there to make it look right, I knew I was wrong. The bustle is is the variety with a fairly flat draped front and ties to keep the 'fluffy' back over the bum. It had to be from the height (pun intended) of the bustle-era (1870s or 1880s). So I started looking for comparable garments. Alas, that was easier said than done, even with the availability of online collections and Pinterest pages. The vast majority of three-piece dresses from this period consist of an underskirt, overskirt, and separate bodice that buttons up the front. My dress buttons up the back and doesn't have a separate bodice. The best comparable I could find was a plaid ca. 1880 dress from the Museum at FIT. The only other dress I thought had the right look was a sea-side ensemble with bodice, skirt, and belt from Augusta Auctions. It also dates to 1880. So 1880-ish it is!

The best matches for my net dress are a sea side
ensemble from Augusta Auctions (left) an a plaid
bustle dress that buttons up the back from The 
Museum at FIT (above). Both date to c. 1880.
 2A) What would you wear under the sheer bodice? The material is practically transparent, so with visibility of undergarments at roughly 90% they have to be just right. I tried a period-appropriate corset cover, but it buttons up the front and looked wrong to have those buttons under the netting. I didn't even bother to try a chemise pulled on over the head because that would get all bunched up at the waist and the wrinkles would show through. I suspect this had a specialized corset cover that either had a flap to conceal the closures, or it attached under the arm instead of down the front. I don't have anything like that for the 1880s, but the look improved when I tried an early 20th-century camisole with concealed hooks & eyes. It looks better even with lace showing through the netted pattern. I wonder if the woman who wore this would have a similar lace trim on her corset cover as a little peek-a-boo at her fancy underthings?

Here you see the dress over a button up corset cover ca. 1865-1890 (left),
and an early 20th-century corset cover with concealed hooks & eyes (right).

This ca. 1868 corset cover has a 
concealed closure that wouldn't show
under a dress made of netting.
2B) Same problem, different location: What would you wear under the skirt?  I tried using a bustled petticoat but it you can see every wrinkle and pleat through the netting and you can see the bustle ties. It just seems kind of tacky. I am wondering if it had a lobster-tail style bustle of some kind that was designed specifically to look clean under the netting while concealing all ties and attachments. If only I could find one of those at a reasonable price...

You can see every gather in the petticoat through the skirt,
as well as the ties that keep the overskirt in place. In short,
it isn't the cleanest overall look.

3) What's the deal with the sash? My first thought was that it was some kind of belt, but the waist of the over-dress is finished and doesn't really need a belt to cover it. The neck band, by contrast, is made of the same plain linen as the waist of the underskirt (below), so I suspect it is meant to be covered up. Using the sash for that had the most ridiculous results though. Giant bow tie anyone? Dubious. 

No, based on a closer look at seam placement I think my initial thought of a belt was a better guess. On every part of this garment, the location of seams is significant. The underskirt, for example, has an off-center closure, but the waistband has a seam at the center back anyway. There's no structural reason for the seam, so it's probably there to help you orient the skirt properly. Like many bustle-era petticoats, the underskirt has multiple horizontal seams on the back and vertical seams at each side. The seams aren't meant to show though, so they have to be oriented just right.

The sash as a giant bowtie is way gaudy even by Victorian 
The neck band (right) is a bit too boring to go 
uncovered. It  needs a little something. 
Emphasis on "little" though...

Ultimately, this helps with the issue of the sash because that also has a random extra off-center seam that needs to be hidden by the final look. There is also an area of decoration that is off-center and begs to be seen. When I put the seam at the center back of the waist, ran it around the waist and made a loop just long enough to display the middle decoration, whaddya know? Everything looked wonderfully placed and bustle-y. Also, it covers up the bustle ties that show through the overskirt. I pinned the sash in place instead of tying a fancy knot. Yes, that could be a shortcut, but the bustle era was big on bar pins of various sizes to get everything draped just so, and there is no reason to think this sash didn't attach with one or two.

Seam montage! At left you can see how the underskirt has an off-center closure, but there is an extra seam on the waistband to help you orient the skirt so the bustle seams are where they need to be. The sash (center) has an unsightly seam that shouldn't show, and an area of extra decoration that should show. When draped over the bustle with one loop (right), things seem to match up juuuuust right.  

4) If the sash wasn't for the neck, was there something else to go there? I don't really know, but my guess is that there was. Maybe a lacy necktie, a ribbon, a fake flower on a band. Accessories happened; it's just hard to know what form they would take.

John Lavery's A Game of Tennis shows how to pull off
a backhand shot in a full bustle.
6) Where would one wear this little number? Maybe if I could figure that out, it would be easier to envision the proper accessories to go with it. In my search for comparables, I made some progress on this. The outfit was no doubt for summer and has the whimsy and airiness for the beach or even for a game of tennis. It's hard to imagine playing tennis in a bustle, but this dress is nice and stretchy to allow range of motion. It would be way too presumptuous to assume this was a tennis dress though, so by way of accessories, I'm thinking general summer things like a flowy scarf at the neck, a parasol, and a straw hat a la Claude Monet.

In conclusion, whether I know everything there is to know about this dress or not, at the very least I know that its awesomeness is unquestionable. Now if anyone out there wants to offer their thoughts on underthings, accessories, etc., I am more than happy to hear from you!

The 'after' shot. All it needs is the accessories!
I once tried to recreate this painting in a Jr. High art 
class, so of course I thought of it as the epitome of
the look that my new summer dress represents. I am
no Claude Monet, but I'm awfully excited to be the 
owner of the kind of dress that inspired him. Love it
so much!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Recent Investigations: The Purple *Thing*

Lately I'm researching my newest acquisitions, so I'm postponing some entries on infant layettes until I'm in the mood. See, the thing about being a collector is that the having of things is less of a thrill than the hunt for said things, so the baby gowns I've got are older news. Don't get me wrong, I get jazzed about owning the stuff, too, but there's just something about not knowing if there will be a nice little surprise in the next booth at the antique mall. Finding a bargain gives me a shot of adrenaline that makes me feel all happy-buzzy. And the high is that much more exciting when you know that the seller didn't know what they had, and therefore didn't price it accordingly.

As a case in point, I found this purple silk thing labeled "bonnet?" on a recent antique trip with a friend. The seller wasn't quite sure what it was, but it was roughly the size of an adult head, so they made a guess. I'd be inclined to buy that (actually, I did buy it, but you know what I mean), except that I would have expected a 19th-century silk bonnet to be lined, and I've never seen one with a hole at the back- especially a hole defined by a shiny brown linen band with a button closure. So "bonnet" just didn't seem right.

I had seen a similar linen tape as a waistband with a button closure on a mid-19th century petticoat in my collection, so my brain went to "skirt". It was so tiny though that if I was right, then it had to be for a doll. Sure enough when I set it down with the waistband up, it made a perfect miniature 1870-ish skirt that reminded me of an amazing purplish gown in the V&A's collection. Mystery solved!

The band on the purple thing (top) looked like the waist on a
mid-19th-century quilted silk petticoat (bottom).
The Victoria & Albert Museum has the most
amazing costume collection, including this
ca. 1870 purple gown. The V&A also published
several fantastic books on the fashions in their
collection and I recommend them to anyone
interested in close-up views of some of the finest
surviving garments in the world.
Looks like a doll skirt to me. Fancy!
I wasn't sure I should I pay money for it though. Yes, it was under $20 and would be a helluva lot easier to store than an adult size crinoline skirt, but dolls kind of creep me out, so I try to limit my collecting behavior to clothes that were worn by real living people. Still, there was just something about it. Maybe the "something" was that I knew what it was when the seller didn't- I mean who doesn't love to be right like that?- or maybe it was the enthusiastic encouragement I received from my shopping buddy, but I bought it.

This is where I would tell you all about this image if I knew anything about it other 
than I found it on Pinterest.
In the end, I have no regrets. I could always sell it to the doll-collecting world if I get tired of it, and this was a fun little research avenue. The doll skirt gave me something new to look for when I'm exploring that time-sink known as Pinterest. On a recent Pin-Binge I was exploring a board with 19th-century photos and I stumbled on a wonderful shot of a little girl looking lovingly at a high-fashion doll. Most of the dolls I've seen in children's photos are being cuddled or held in some way, but this doll was placed on the chair with the back of her full crinoline skirt towards the camera. I couldn't find any details about the image, but I love having it as an illustration of how my tiny purple not-a-bonnet crinoline probably looked in its original context. Next goal: find that amazing dress the little girl is wearing for under $20!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Infant Shirts in the 19th Century

My mid 19th-century infant shirt without the flaps folded.
Behold! It's my first ever post based on a question posted in the comments! A big shout out to Lou McCulloch, who asked whether the flaps on infant shirts fold in or out. And the answer is... the flaps fold OUT. But let's back up and look at infant shirts in general and why there is any confusion about flaps at all.

I got an infant shirt for Christmas a few years ago (thanks Mom!) and I wasn't really sure what to make of it except that it had some of the finest hand sewing I had ever seen, including intricate stitching and lace work. Like most 18th- and 19th-century shirts, this piece is made using rectangles and squares of fabric instead of a curvy, contoured pattern.

Overall view of the shirt when unfolded. It is simply made with a rectangle of fabric plus some lace for the sleeves.
Detail of the shirt, showing how the seam on the flap is turned under when the flaps fold out.
My first clue about the direction of the flaps came from the super fine hem; the seam allowances on the flaps were turned so as not to show when the flaps folded out. But if the flaps folded in, neither side would be visible, so why would the direction of the seam allowance matter? I still wasn't sure, so I looked to images of 19th-century infants to see if any flaps were visible in those. I couldn't find anything. But that's no surprise, since shirts are a type of undergarment and you generally can't see such things in portraits. As the nickname implies, "unmentionables" are rarely discussed in historical documents, especially in the Victorian period.

My newest infant shirt, with reinforced armpits and fine decoration.
Then I found an infant shirt in on e-bay that settled it for me, and I needed to buy it so I could add it to this post. The flaps are embroidered, showing a distinctive right side and wrong side and proving that the flaps fold out. I also stumbled upon an image from the Dictionary of Children's Clothes by Noreen Marshall showing the many layers infants wore in the 1880s. It shows the flaps folding out over a barracoat or petticoat, followed by a slip and then the gown. That's why the flaps don't show in art and photos; they are sandwiched between two other garments before the outer gown is added. There are a lot of layers involved. Babies had a much more complex wardrobe than I had realized!
Detail of the hand embroidery and bobbin lace adorning the shirt's flaps.

Front and back views of an infant shirt as it would be worn under a barracoat. The flaps fold out over the barracoat and another slip might be added to cover both the shirt flaps and barracoat before the gown went on.

 More posts to follow on the infant layette later, but for now I will close with a big thanks to Lou. You gave me an excuse to buy some new books and a darling infant shirt to add to my collection.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Reticule Rescue Results

A natural follow up to the condition assessment I did on Ann Porterfield's reticule is a little tutorial on archival storage. For the most part, I'm not doing anything to undo damage to the bag, but I'm packaging it in a way that should prevent any further harm. This story is easiest to tell with images, so here they are.

The first step was to make an insert to go into the bag to eliminate the issue of pressed folds as much as possible. I made a simple insert by measuring the bag and making a sketch of a pattern that will be slightly smaller than the bag. It should be made so that it doesn't quite fill up the whole thing, otherwise the insert would stress the seams and be more harmful than helpful. Using this pattern, I cut out some natural unbleached cotton batting left over from my padded hanger project. I made about 8 of these to layer together as stuffing. Then I made an unbleached muslin casing for the batting layers. I left this open long enough to test the imsert to make sure that the size was appropriate. When I was satisfied with the height of the pad, I hand sewed the top to finish it.

Next, I got out my hand steamer and used it to relax the various creases. The idea here is to make as few folds and wrinkles as possible since they will make weak points over the long term. Having the padded insert in the purse helped to give it the proper shape as steam was applied without the stress and friction of pressing.  In the 'after' photos, you can barely see the crease in the middle where it seems the bag had been folded in storage.

Finally, the protective swaddling! I just happen to have some small acid-free boxes that I bought ages ago for my purse collection from Hollinger/Metal Edge, and one was the perfect size for my needs. All I had to do was line it with tissue to make a protective nest for the bag. While I generally opt for plain acid-free tissue as I mentioned in my post The Tissue Issue, for this project I used buffered tissue since I know that the bag is made entirely of cotton.

From start to finish, this padding and packaging project took me about two hours and cost approximately $10 in materials; a small price to pay for helping this little lovely survive another 200 years.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Reticule Rescue Operation

Clearly I have not been inspired to work on the blog for a while, but I haven't been idle! I've been seeking out new additions to my collection and snapping up some really great things. I can't say that I needed these things, or even that I have space for them, but it seems that the more I learn, the more I want good examples of different time periods, accessories, garments... you get the idea. I seem to want at least one good example of everything. That is a bit problematic for the budget though, so I try to rein myself in by turning on Hoarders marathons when I peruse eBay. Only truly special or truly cheap finds make the cut.

An overall view of my most recent find; an elaborately embroidered whitework reticlue ca. 1795-1825 with the name Ann Porterfield on the front. The back depicts an urn holding flowers, which was a very popular motif in the early 19th century.

Today's feature is my most recent acquisition, a fragile but amazing embroidered bag with the name "Ann Porterfield" written front and center. This bag is not in the best of shape, but I tend to love items all the more when it's clear that they survived because they were loved, not because they were too impractical to use and were therefore relegated to storage. After all, I don't plan to pack it with my wallet and keys and go out on the town; its purpose in life at this point is primarily to serve as an object for my adoration. I'll probably study it, too, and maybe find a way to exhibit it, but mostly I'll stare at it while suppressing the squeals of glee trying to erupt from deep in my belly. Did I mention that I think it it was probably made between 1795 and 1825? Yeah, it's that old. Thus the glee.

I plan to do some research on Ann Porterfield to find out more about her life if I can, but first, I'm going to do something I don't always do and make a special support for storing the bag. I have several reasons for making this a priority. First, I am about to give a little talk in a workshop about costume storage, so it'll be nice to have a small example on hand. Second, and most importantly, my inner curator tells me that this item really needs the attention. As I've mentioned before, I have enough education in conservation to fill me with a dreadful knowledge of the agents of deterioration and I can see them at work on this bag. Here is a little condition assessment:

The reticule's ruched sides and gathered top are a source of concern 
because folds and wrinkles create weak points in the delicate fabric. Also,
Use of the drawstring closure has worn through the string's casing in some
Material: Very lightweight cotton with white thread embroidery, probably also in cotton. Cotton is a plant, which is cellulose based, which is inherently acidic. Luckily cotton is fairly stable though, so acidity isn't my biggest concern.

Structure: The ruched sides and gathered closure of the reticule create wrinkles that are lovely additions to its style, but unfortunately every fold and wrinkle is a source of stress. When the folds are pressed (like when laid flat in storage) the stress leads to fiber breakage and weak points. Ever fold and re-fold paper to rip it cleanly when you didn't have any scissors handy? Same concept.

This seems to be how the reticule was stored for a long time.
You can see the crease left by folding in the overall photos
Folded Storage: On a related note, the bag seems to have been folded for storage. It arrived folded into quarters in an envelope, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was often stashed that way, or at least folded in half. Even when unfolded, this unnecessary and harmful crease remains.

The Inscription: "Ann Porterfield" was written on the bag with a fountain pen, and I am ever so glad it was. But (there always has to be a "but", sorry) that means that this incredibly fine cotton has been subjected to pressure by a sharp, pointed metal object. More weak points! Why not just write your name with a scalpel, hmm? As if that's not scary enough, the ink used probably has iron in it. Just think about this for a moment. Yes, that brownish appearance of old ink is, in part, created by rust. Rust! The all-important inscription on this heartbreakingly beautiful piece of needlework is rusting.

The inscription is also a weak point. Note the separation of the fabric along the line made 
by the bottom of the "f" in "Porterfield."

At this point I sort of want to do that thing where you put your fingers in your ears and go "lalalalalalalaa!" so that I don'y have to think about it anymore, because there is nothing to be done about it. The chemical reaction that causes iron to rust can be slowed or even halted if deprived of such things as moisture and oxygen, but frankly, I don't have an anaerobic chamber in my closet, and the cotton carrying that rusting signature is, in fact, a material that has the annoying habit of sucking water molecules out of the air around it. We call that "hydroscopic" in the conservation biz, but you probably just know it as that "absorption" thing that any decent bath towel is supposed to do. So let the rusting continue...

"Other Damage" montage. A brown spot of unknown origin is featured at top left, while the top right offers a close up of a nasty rip in a zig-zag along the fabric grain. Some unidentified spongy discoloration is shown on the bottom left. In the image on the bottom right you can see a variety of small holes, including a split along the fabric grain and some round spots that may represent old pest damage.

The Unknowns: I'm kind of ready to throw up my hands and give up at this point, so before I lose momentum I'm just going to lump all of the other issues together here under the general topic of, "something bad happened, I don't know what." First, the bag has been ripped near the opening. At least I can work some magic there by just not ripping it any more. Second, there are some small holes where the fabric wore too thin and split, or a bug ate lunch or something. Again, probably avoidable in future. Finally, there are a few different categories of discoloration going on. The general overall yellowing is probably from exposure to acids; most likely something it was stored in like tissue, a box, a drawer, or a trunk. A few small brown spots could also be acid damage, but then again, they could be iron stains or bug poop. I really don't want to know. Finally, there are some brownish smudges that look sort of spongy on one side. That could be old mold stains, or contact with some acidic thing in that one spot, or even oils from the skin. Let's just call all of these issues "character" and move on.

So, time to stop whining about past abuses to this little lovely and take action! What am I going to do about it? Well, I'm not going to wash it, or try chemical intervention with stains, or sew the holes shut. Frankly, I think it's too thin for any of that and even using 'conservator approved' materials, my inexperienced hands would do more harm than good. Instead, I'm going to swaddle Ann Porterfield's Regency reticule like a newborn baby in the most safe and comfy acid-free nest it has ever known, and then I'll wrap it in a buffered tissue security blankie to keep the evil acids away. Check in next time for the after photos.