Late 1860s day dress photographed within the Beecroft Costume archive
By looking closely at one garment you can imagine what a garment would have looked like originally, how it would have been worn and where. Looking through the costume archive I came across a fantastic 1860s Victorian day dress, formed of a jacket and skirt that captivated my attention and made me want to learn more about its provenance.
This 1860s dress entered the museum in 1978. Any item that enters the costume archive is always recorded in the accessions register, which details the items donor, lists a description of the object and gives an accession number, which is useful for easily locating it within the store.
The Accessions Register
Frustratingly in the case of this 1860s dress little information is given about the dresses’ provenance in the register, however the curator did provide a drawing of the dress. This drawing is useful to roughly gauge what it would look like when worn, as it is such a fragile garment it is best handled flat on a table, instead of mounted on a mannequin. Also missing in the dress’s record is information about the donor, a Mrs Allen of Thundersley. Yet looking through the register reveals the donor donated a great deal of costume and accessories. The items range from an Edwardian wedding dress (which is recorded as still having confetti inside the dress folds) to a 1960s dinner dress, as well as a large selection of late 19th century bonnets and early 20th century gloves and purses.
It is possible Mrs Allen was a prolific collector of dress; she even had the 1860s dress valued by the prestigious auction house Christies. She notified the museum of the valuation showing she perhaps gave the pieces away aware of their value, and not merely as an awkward item she wished to be rid of. The dress itself was valued at £75- a smallish sum in today’s money but in 1978 worth more. Whilst the register provides a useful starting point, by moving on to looking at the dress, through examining its construction you can begin to build a much bigger picture.
What is the most arresting aspect of the dress is its vibrant colour, a deep lilac with a rich purple tassel trim. Looking at the costume now, there is quite a contrast between the lighter silk and the darker trim. In fact when it was originally worn the silk was a much richer hue and would have matched the tassels closely. Areas where the dress would not have been exposed to sunlight (inside the pocket and the top of the skirt, which would have been concealed by the jacket) retain the original mauve colour. This mauve colour was relatively new, having been accidentally invented by the chemist William Henry Perkin in 1856. From this time, vibrant synthetic colours were now possible in clothing and mauve was one of the most popular colours. Therefore, what at first seems an exotic colour choice is in fact a common colour, that when worn would have fitted into the current fashions of the day.
The colour of the dress shows it was worn after chemical fabric dyes were invented in the mid 1850s. This is useful, but by looking more deeply at the construction of the ensemble, you can begin to date more accurately. The dress itself is formed of two separate pieces, a fitted jacket and a full-length skirt with a train, and both pieces feature matching trimmings of purple tassels. Trimmings were popular in Victorian dresses and by the end of the 19th century dresses had become fantastical creations of bows, ribbons and looped fabric.
The 19th century saw many changes in the female dress silhouette and examining the shape of the skirt, the style of sleeves and size of skirt are all useful markers to help date garments. Looking at the dress lying flat on the table you can easily see the skirt is longer at the back, with large gathered pleats that would splay out in a long train when worn. This is important for dating as in the 1850s dresses had wide circular skirts but from around 1865, the fullness of the dress shifted to the back, with the front of the dress becoming flatter against the body. This makes it likely that this dress is from the latter half of the 1860s.
Previously, voluminous skirts were created through the wearing of layers of petticoats, but in the late 1850s, the cage crinoline was invented. It was a freeing alternative to heavy petticoats and was formed of hoops of whalebone or lightweight spring steel that were flexible enough to allow women to enter carriages or sit down without crushing their crinoline. This dress probably would have been worn with a cage crinoline or perhaps more likely a crinolette, these were smaller than crinolines and flat fronted and projected outwards at the back, which helped support the full backed gowns of the 1860s.
The ensemble’s buttoned jacket would have fitted perfectly over the full backed skirt. The back of the jacket is cut lower than the front, with a curved hem that incorporates a decorative tasselled bow in the centre. The longer length would enable the jacket to splay out across the full skirt. The sleeves themselves are an interesting shape, what is known as pagoda sleeves, which were fashionable in the 1850s and 1860s. Pagoda sleeves are formed of low, sloping shoulders, with a full sleeve that flares out from the elbow. To maintain the tailored structure of the jacket, with its tapered waist and curved hips, a corset would of course have been worn. By this time the front-fastening split steel busk corset would have been in use, these corsets had lacing at the back but could be fastened at the front by the wearer herself, with hooks or slots and studs, allowing the wearer herself to put on the corset more easily.
The corset would not have been the only undergarment worn, but also the crinolette as well as a chemise (a loose type of shirt reaching to the knees), a pair of drawers and petticoats. To complete her ensemble the wearer would have probably worn gloves and perhaps carried a parasol when outside. Her hair would have been swept up, in a centre parting with the hair plaited or twisted at the back of her head and a hat would have been worn, in the 1860s this was usually in the form of a smaller hat perched on the head.
Iona Farrell (Museums Volunteer)