Original metal picture buttons with the motif of a despondent Ophelia
from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Disclaimer: I am no expert on button
motifs, but I found one on Etsy identified as Ophelia and it seemed
right to me.
On its face, this is a textbook mid-1880s silk bustle dress. There is some typical wear and age damage, but no silk shattering- woot! Also, the original buttons were never removed, which is pretty remarkable since so many picture buttons were long ago distributed to various button collectors. I found a single button with the same "Ophelia" motif for sale on Etsy for $15. If each of the 18 buttons on this bodice is worth that than I could make a profit on the buttons alone! Well, not really since I never actually sell anything from my hoard, but still... Oops, defensiveness creeping in again. Moving on.
The bustle itself is ingeniously structured to achieve the proper level of puff thanks to built-in channels for flexible bustle wires, and a system with a back closure for the main skirt plus a front closure for the rear portion of the silk over-skirt. Strategic tacking with matching thread keeps the bustle bunched in all the right places.
|The skirt has built-in channels for a flexible bustle wire so the dress could be worn without an additional under-bustle. These channels are then covered by a portion of the silk over-skirt that attaches with a front-closure belt strap.
The fitted bodice lacks built-in boning and would have relied on a corset to take its intended shape.
Most of the dress is machine stitched, but the buttonholes were sewn by hand. Old stitch scars on the bodice show how the dress was altered to let out about a half inch on each sleeve and two side seams. I can't even imagine having something so tight fitting that such an alteration would be worth the effort.
|The sleeve and two side seams at the waist have been let out, but the silk is unforgiving and still shows the old stitch lines.
The name "Bennett" is sewn into the
bodice on a small paper tag.
Discovery #2 was a bustle pin still in situ where it strategically pulls up a layer of the over skirt and exposes the hem ruffle for a little peek-a-boo with onlookers. As an archaeologist, I am especially excited about this because these little pins show up on excavations of 19th-century sites. There is one Baltimore laundry site in particular where drainage pipes were found absolutely clogged with pins, buttons, and other clothing attachments- as if launderers put the clothes through the rough washing process however they were delivered, even if removable pins were still on them. So now I know how some of those pins might have been used. Hellooooo artifact reference collection! Can I write this purchase off on my taxes now? Okay, probably not, but it was still worth it because the real mystery was yet to come.
The third discovery arose when I turned the skirt is inside out; there was a pocket! Okay, neat, but not earth shattering. Lots of 19th-century dresses had pockets. But then things got weird. I mean usually built-in pockets don't play hard-to-get, but even with help from my perennial antiquing partner, my mom, it took a while to get to the thing. Instead of being easily accessed through an inconspicuous slit in the over-skirt, this pocket opening is completely concealed by the over-skirt; as in, you have to hike up the draped silk, expose the cotton under-skirt, and generally disrupt the whole look to get at the pocket. Also, thanks to some tacked areas sewn into the skirt to make it drape properly, it wouldn't have been possible to get at the pocket at all without causing a rip if someone had the dress on. We had to do some seriously careful maneuvering to get at it.
|The pocket is easy to see from the inside of the skirt (right), but the opening is hard to get to, since there's no way to get at the pocket without hiking the draped over-skirt up, and tacks on the over-skirt block access (left).
Why would anyone make a pocket so inaccessible? Was the dress altered without taking the pocket into account? Or was the pocket added because Ms. Bennett had need of a super secret hidey-hole on her person? Maybe she needed it to smuggle coded messages or something?! In general, I feel like I'm getting too old for that level of fantastical speculation, but I feel compelled to mention the possibility because in this case it might be TRUE!
Thank goodness my mom was there to share my excitement when I finally felt my way to the pocket and pulled out a clump of paper, balled up and wrinkled as if it had been through the laundry. It consisted of two translucent sheets, both of which exhibited writing. There we were thinking we'd stumbled upon some historic letter, and then we were standing there, each with a freshly unballed sheet of paper, and each suffering from complete bafflement. The writing is readable, but it makes no sense!
"Bismark Omit leafage buck bank
Paul Ramify loamy event false new event..." and so on.
My first thought was maybe a writing exercise? Or some kind of list? But there are also numbers between the lines, each line is marked off with a different color, and there are weird time-like notes in the margin; 10pm, 1113PM, and 1124 P. I feel like those clues actually DO point to code of some kind. If only I wrote the "Commitment to Code" blog, I'd tell you what it means. Instead, I'm putting it up here in case there's some decoding prodigy out there looking for a project.