top of page

Purple plaid? Yes, please!

Let me start by saying: I LOVE this dress! The photographs can get a little trippy since the printed silk has so many different layers, and the tiny black grid, followed by the splintered lines, can really throw off the eyes! But, it's a lovely swishy silk, social-distance-inducing dress, and very apropos in light of the current pandemic situation.

In order to fully illustrate how this dress would have been worn, we first have to address the fact that this dress is missing several components to make it complete.

1. A lace collar

Lace collars were popular between 1850 and 1860, and added a decorative and feminine touch to the dress, as well as serving a practical purpose of keeping body oils off key parts of the dress. This was especially important because it was much harder to wash dresses then! The lace of the collar also probably matched the lace of the undersleeves, also known as

2. A belt

The height of where the last button stops in relation to the cording at the waist makes me think that something else would have been worn with this dress, if not only to break the eye away from the print, but to highlight the tiny waist. It might not have been as dramatic as the one pictured below, though!

3. An accurate hoop skirt

Illustration in the August 1856 issue of Punch Magazine

A few days before I began the inspection of the dress in order to write and feature it for the month of March, I found an early 1860s hoop skirt (also known as a crinoline) for sale on ebay - naturally I purchased it, hoping it would add some authenticity to the floof of the skirt. Now, I already had a conservation friendly reproduction hoop made of cotton muslin that my mom made me for a wedding dress exhibit several years ago. All measurements and designs were taken from Laura Flecker's A Practical Guide to Costume Mounting, but even though they filled out the dresses nicely, I wanted to find an accurate one to be able to visualize the authenticity of what a late 1850s hoop skirt would have contributed to the silhouette.

The hoop skirt arrived, and while super fascinating (I'll make sure to feature it in another post), it didn't do much to the dress. It just looked deflated and sad.

My cat decided he wanted to help with dressing the mannequin.

I went on the hunt again. Next, I purchased an 1860s petticoat (which are actually quite hard to find), again hoping that with the hoop and the petticoat, it would add extra flounce. Again, I was slightly disappointed. So, I resorted to having the authentic crinoline, the petticoat, and then my reproduction hoop all under the dress. It looked better, but still not up to silhouettes of the day - or my standards - as advertised in photographs from the period. But, it works. In the photos below, the one on the left is with the period crinoline and petticoat; the right - both of those plus the reproduction crinoline.

A little bit about 1860s undergarments:

A woman wore multiple layers when it came to her underclothes. Here's a recounting from the bottom layer, working out toward the dress itself.

Cross section of 1860s undergarments. Original owner of image is unknown.

1. Chemise - somewhat like a nightgown, worn against the skin to protect the corset from oils and sweat

2. Drawers or bloomers - basically two pant legs attached to a ribbon or tie at the waist (there is no seam between the legs) - this was basically their underwear!

3. Corset

4. Corset cover - to hide the corset lines and color, as well as to protect the garment from snagging on any clasps of the corset

5. Light petticoat

6. Crinoline

7. Outer petticoat - To protect the skirt of the garment from snagging on the wire of the crinoline

8. Dress

Crinolines from the 1850s resembled the bell shape seen in the 1840s, just much wider. The silhouette changed slightly by the mid to late 1860s, with the bell shape moving toward the back of the silhouette, highlighting a flat front and trained posterior. The images below show an 1850s dress and crinoline vs an 1860s dress and crinoline.

Otherwise, this dress is a beautiful example of a c. 1859/1860 day dress. The box pleating at the waist, the smooth exterior without any additional flounces, the measurements of the skirt, and the shape of the sleeves, all point to this time period.

It's construction is very typical of a late 1850s dress/early 1860s dress, made up of a bodice and skirt sewn together after each was constructed separately. It is all hand sewn, too.

The exterior of the dress is made of printed silk, while the lining is a cotton or flax blend. I'm almost positive the lining has been handwoven, as the weave and the spinning of the threads are irregular, and contains an interesting shine. Without a microscope, I'm not completely sure of its make up.

The other really interesting thing about the lining of this dress, besides the mauve hand stitching at the sleeves (seen in the left photo above), is that half of the lining was cut from the interior of the skirt. It must have been put to a better use, but a use that required the careful remove of it from the dress. It's been cut from the hem along the bottom (remnants of this can be seen in the loupe photo at the right above, with no more than a half inch allowance left attached to the skirt.

The skirt itself, not the lining, is made up of seven panels, very clearly defined by the selvage edge. Each panel is roughly 22 inches wide, creating a base circumference of the skirt of 156 inches. The waist is 23 inches, and the box pleating made it easier on the seamstress to have a full skirt, but a tiny waist. The pleats are wide, and overlapping, and there's probably around 6 to 8 inches allowance on the inside waist of the skirt. It's probably there for two reasons - 1) made by the wearer herself, who was not a professional seamstress, or 2) in case she gained weight and needed to alter it in any way.

As for the bodice, it's made of five panels, with separate sleeves. The darts at the bust have reed boning sewn into little slip cases, but no other boning is present. The bodice closes via hook and eye closures, and the buttons are only for decoration. One thing to note about the buttons - the maker ran out of the maroon thread, and so the last two buttons have been attached with white thread.

The sleeves are bell shaped pagoda sleeves - but lack the flounced detail and flourishes

Young Woman in Green Dress,c. 1857, from the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

seen earlier in the decade. These sleeves were shorter, flared, and often worn with a decorative lace undersleeve, known as a engageantes. The ruffle detail is a slight nod to earlier styles , but was made on a budget, as the ruffle stops with the seam at the wrist. The purple dye, brightly seen in the ruffle (as well as the green in the image to the right), were something of new creations in the 1850s, and were must haves to be in the height of fashion. William Henry Perkin created the dye by accident in 1856 while trying to find a cheaper cure for malaria than quinine. He used tar coal collected from gas lamps, which, after boiled down, left a brilliant but resilient purple on fabrics. It was an instant success, but much like the green dyes made of arsenic, the purples were also somewhat hazardous to one's health, receiving the name "Mauve Measles" because of the rash women sometimes developed from the dyes.

Unfortunately, this dress has a number of unsightly stains, the main ones being under the arms. There's also an unsightly stain across the center back of the bodice, as well as the right proper center of the skirt - right where the dress is extra creasy, and no amount of steaming would get them out. Because of the way the creases are lined up, I imagine that the dress was folded, and something was spilled on the bodice, soaking through to the skirt.

One little surprise: there is a pocket at the right side of the skirt, nestled in the box pleats. Inside the pocket was a linen handkerchief! It must have been forgotten by the wearer at some point. It has a sweet little embroidery at one corner, and again was probably hand sewn by either the owner of the dress, or by someone in her family.

It's always fun to find little bits of hidden history like this! For now, it's safely back in the pocket of the dress.

27 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page