Thursday, July 18, 2013

1850's Dress in Brown with cool black trim

From the seller:

First, a disclaimer. I am not an expert in 19th century fashion, and may miss dates or terms in this description. I have spent a long time today looking at images resulting from search terms such as "Victorian Sleeve Fashion" and am trying to distill what I saw as best I can. So please bear with me for any shortcomings. I originally thought to date this from the 1870's to the 1880's, due to the brown color, but as I looked more deeply, the sleeve design and the ruffled skirt have me reconsidering, and speculating that this could be earlier. I will describe what is here as best as I can, and go from there.

Like many American girls, I loved to read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, a national treasure of day to day life in the 1800's. One of the things she wrote about in her later books was about how she and her mother sewed the dresses they wore. As a girl reading these books many years after the time frame they covered, the fashions were a mystery to me, as well as the terms Laura used to describe the different features of her dresses. If I were to have a dress such as this one, it might have been helpful to see some of what she described.

We acquired this dress at an auction that identified it as coming from the Historical Society of Frederick County, Maryland.
The blouse (or basque) is made of brown silk that makes such a rustling sound, I wonder if it is taffeta. (I tried the burn test, and it is a natural fiber, although I cannot tell what the fiber is. Our source called it silk.) This is lined with a plain white fabric, probably cotton. It has a modest round neckline and a wide peplum waist. You can see the combination of machine stitching used to construct it and hand stitching to complete detail work, such as adding the V shape trim line on the front, the hook and eye closures, the way the seams are finished, with the edges of the top and lining fabric stitched together with an overcast stitch. Also visible are the casings sewn in where there are some sort of stays inserted. The sleeves have an interesting treatment. Above the elbow, there is an inner sleeve, with two puffs added for the outward appearance. Below the elbow is a wide flounce, lined in cream silk (I think), with a cream colored ruffle at the edge of the inside, and a line of the trim seen elsewhere on the dress (like the V shape on the bosom) on the outside of the flounce. Here are the approx. measurements of the garment: 37" bust, 22" waist, 28" from the center neck to the hem at the back. The front is shorter. It measures approx. 12.5" across the shoulders. The basque shows fading and wear, along with some seams coming undone, and there are splits developing in the fabric in some places.

The skirt has a almost 2" wide elastic band, in navy blue, which I wonder if it wasn't added later in the life of the garment. It is made of the brown silk found in the basque, lined with buckram. Three deep ruffled flounces, made of an interesting combination fabric with silk, a velvet texture and a fringe, gathered and sewn to the skirt, creates layers and a silhouette. Just speculating here, but the roughness of the lining makes me surmise that this was meant to be worn with a hoop or at the very least, heavy petticoats. The bottom most flounce had the fringe removed, and the inside has a brown liner below the course buckram. The band at the waist measures approx. 32", and it is 40.5" from there to the hem. The hem measures approx. 127" in circumference. There is even a good sized pocket added to the side seam; it looks like the hand must go under the flounce to access it. The skirt is in better condition than the blouse, but there is some wear and fragility to the fabric, especially the lining fabric. There is a difference in the waist measurement of the blouse and the skirt. I don't know how to explain it, perhaps it was allowed to become roomier when the elastic waistband was added to the skirt to be used by someone who wore it as a costume who did not wear a corset. It is a mystery.

The hat is a little black hat, made to go over the back of the head, with no sun protection such as a bonnet would provide. It has a black ribbon bow on the left side, and some kind of wire to give it shaping. I found a small pin with a round head in it that probably served as a hat pin, though it is short for a hat pin. Good Luck!

From Me:

This seller is definitely in the running for most awesome seller ever. They gave measurements, got a TON of awesome photos (I didn't even post half), admit they aren't historians, and yet, somehow get some pretty darn good information in there.

This is mid to late 1850's based upon the skirt and bodice shapes. Yes, the elastic was added much later.

What I love about this dress is the black velvet cut out trim. It's pretty freakin' awesome.


  1. I thought 1850s also. I need to save this seller.
    What date do you think that hat was? I have one that looks exactly like that on the inside. I was thinking late 80s?

    1. I will be the first to admit - I suck at dating hats. :-) I think it might be original - just altered slightly in the 1860's. You can see a very similar styled one here from the 1850's. But I'm terrible at hats. I always bug Taylor on those. She's amazing with those.

    2. Since they don't have a front/side view of the hat, we may not be able to date it. I was thinking it was a capote from the 80s but they may mean the bonnets that sit on the back of the head. I didn't think it would be that far off from their dress.
      I'm not too bad on dating hats but they bounced around so much, you never knew.