The Smart Collection
This week instead of focusing on just one garment I have decided to look at two evening gowns, which form part of the Smart collection. This collection housed at the Beecroft contains costume accessories and garments from the mid 19th century to the early 20thcentury. These were all collected by the donor’s wife over a number of years, items she herself collected and also objects given to her by others. She evidently had a passion for historic costume and the scale of the donations highlights the breadth of her collection.
I came across two beautiful garments, stored together, from the Smart Collection whilst having an explore of the Costume archive and it led me on to a mini investigation of home dressmaking and a perplexing mystery of a certain lace fabric…
A child’s dress?
The first dress under investigation is a delicate lace gown, with a shaped bodice with a mid-length skirt. (It would originally have been worn with a slip or dress underneath due to the sheerness of the dress!)
When I first laid out the garment I was confused by the clash between style and length, the shaped high-waisted bodice places it within the Edwardian era, yet the short length seemed more fitting to a 1920s style.
1900s fashion columns and Madame Rosé
To more accurately date the dress I decided to look through records of women’s fashion in the early 1900s to garner an idea of the styles that ordinary Southend woman would have been wearing as I knew that the Smart Collection hailed from the local area.
Searching through records of the Southend Telegraph and Leigh and Shoeburyness Recorder I came across the weekly section ‘Home and Fashion’ featuring sketches of the latest fashion designs. It was written by the ridiculously titled ‘Madame Rosé’, Although her name is French she most probably was not, (if she even existed!) but readers would have delighted in the thought of a French fashion correspondent, as France and most importantly Paris was the centre of Fashion at this time.
In February 1909 Madame Rosé includes a sketch of a satin evening gown that features the same short-waisted style bodice of the lace dress, with the cross-over of draped fabric at the bust that can be seen in the Smart collection dress.
This style itself is distinctive of the 1910s, placing the lace dress within the era. The soft delicate colours of this dress in a muted beige shade, as well as the floral lace overlay is very suited to the Edwardian style of this time which was overtly feminine and ‘frou-frou’ Madame herself describes many blouses and dresses in ‘ivory tones’ and pastels.
An enterprising dressmaker
If we look at the inside of the dress at the bust we see the reverse of a gold fabric has decorative coils, strangely these coils have been covered up by a lace overlay. It appears the dressmaker, probably the wearer herself, is re-using a gold fabric that may have been surplus material from a previous dress. ‘Madame Rosé’ promoted the ‘using up of remnante’ meaning leftover fabrics from previous makes as a way to save money.
Using up fabrics was an inexpensive way of creating individualised dresses, re-using bits of lace, or offcuts or even re-salvaging dress’s to make completely different garment. At the time most women would be skilled in sewing and be able to cleverly create garments in this way.
Using the Southend Telegraph helps me to place this dress within the 1910s, through both the style and method of construction, yet the skirt length seems too short for this time, although hemlines did rise, it was not to this degree.
Child’s dress up
The reason for the short length of the dress is revealed on closer inspection. We can see the dress has been taken up by looking at the waist seam. The fabric has been folded over and loosely tacked with thread, causing the pattern to become awkwardly folded over and irregular.
The alteration evidently impacted the fastenings of the dress, which once were all hooks and eyes and now feature poppers. The taking up of the dress could be due to a daughter or younger wearer of the family wishing to wear the dress, and could have taken place many years after the dress was originally worn, making it now into a child’s dress.
Interestingly this trait of re-use and alteration continues into the other dress in focus this week.
Same Lace Different Eras
The second dress is a fascinating construction of a lace overlay tubular dress, with a flared skirt at the bottom. Like the 1910s dress it is part of the Smart collection but although stored together, there is no record of them having been connected but both seem to be made of the same lace fabric.
This dress is far less structured than the 1910 dress and features the tubular silhouette that emerged after World War One and into the 1920s. I would place this garment within the early 1920s as the waist is still quite high and does not feature the quintessential drop waist, and the length remains conservative as opposed to the shorter styles of the mid-1920s.
Yet despite being made a decade later this dress features the same floral lace, this time overlaid over the top-half of the dress. If we look closely at the lace both feature the distinctive rose and paisley like floral sprig. Could it be that both dresses were once owned by the same woman who continued her enterprising sewing skills to create an evening dress using the same fabric she had stored for many years?
Had she made this dress in the 1920s and at the same time reworked an older dress for a child, who loved the lace fabric her mother perhaps was wearing. Was this in fact Mrs Smarts mothers own dress? Or a relation? In the accession register it notes that many items owned by Mrs Smart were gifted to her from other women, which does limit the chance that this was a family heirloom.
A Rather Unusual Lining
Like the Edwardian dress, this gold garment is an intriguing example of home dressmaking. Strangely the lining, is in fact a slip, either a nightgown or undergarment and has stitched bows that are incongruous with the overall dress aesthetic. This idiosyncratic touch shows an enterprising dressmaker who is making the most of her available resources and saving on purchasing new materials.
Whether these dresses were created by the same dressmaker, one can only speculate but it is most probably likely, due to the lace.
What I most like is to be able to see altered dress in a museum, when we walk round museums we are so used to seeing perfectly preserved dresses, but if we consider the ages of these dresses many would have undergone a ‘life-cycle.’ Of course the very wealthy could afford to have clothes regularly made and to be able to preserve older garments but others would have re-used dresses, using initiative and sewing skills to rework garments, whether this be simply adding different trimmings as an inexpensive way of creating novelty or re-salvaging old lace to make a completely different garment.
Iona Farrell (Museums Volunteer)