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Regency Era Costume Mounting with Colonial Williamsburg

One of the exciting things about curating exhibits is the connections made between objects and stories. In the Historical Society of Western Virginia's exhibit Botetourt County: 250+1 Years of Delight, I was so excited to find connections between Botetourt County individuals and objects in collections as far reaching as the Missouri Historical Society.

One such object that has lasting connections toady was Colonial Williamsburg's Ann Cary Selden Breckinridge dress, worn

sometime between 1809 and 1817. The Breckinridges - General James and Ann Selden Breckinridge - lived in Botetourt County at Grove Hill, just outside of Fincastle. An influential and wealthy frontier family, General Breckinridge acted as a surveyor, lawyer, and eventually a member of the U.S. House of Representatives during the Presidency of James Madison.

This dress, worn by Ann at a Congressional Ball at the White House, is a spectacular example of the changing fashions of the 1810s, as well as America's divergence from British fashion. Dolley Madison, who had an avant-garde fashion sense, followed French fashions, as war with Britain was imminent, and this vibrant red cotton dress would have stood out among the white neoclassical dresses of the decade prior. The yellow cotton embroidery highlights flowers, wheat, and Greek key designs, and were embroidered prior to the gown's completion, but with it's completed form already in mind.

Loaning an item like this has a number of caveats, as it should, and thankfully came with its own mannequin. A Kyoto Costume Institute mannequin was padded out to fit the proportions of Ann's dress. There are few options when looking for historic, conservation friendly, customizable mannequins, and KCI mannequins, although extremely expensive, do come with a head, arms, hands, and feet.

When creating mannequins, you're not only looking at the measurements of the dress, but of the silhouette and style of the time period. So, a background in fashion history, and prior knowledge in the changing silhouettes is important.

Gretchen Guidess, Textiles conservator for Colonial Williamsburg, created the underpinnings for this dress, as well as acted as courier for the object - traveling to install and de-install the dress at the start and end of the exhibit. These underpinnings are created with undyed cotton muslin and tulle, and in this case, were relatively simple. The bust was padded out with polyester fiberfill, and covered with a lightweight dyed silk fabric where the fiberfill would be exposed. The underpinnings are then sewn to the mannequin, not only to help support the dress, but to provide the desired silhouette - that of the early 1810s.

Regency fashion during this time period consisted of the empire waistline, small puffed sleeves, and a boxy shift style skirt - a fashion that I don't necessarily think flatters anyone who wears it, but that's just my personal opinion. Ball dresses included accessories such as fancy headdresses, shawls, elbow or high length gloves, and fans.

We don't know the exact date this dress was worn, just that it was worn to a Congressional Ball while General Breckinridge was a part of the US House of Representatives (1809-1817). At this point in her life, she had already had 10 children, and was quite matronly in appearance. One drawback to the KCI mannequins is the rather small neck and head, especially in the case where the dress proportions are larger, and don't quite match the highly stylized neck and face.

As much as we'd like to believe 'people were smaller' in ages past, this was not always the case, and gives us a false sense of reality. Yes, there were smaller individuals, as evidenced by the extant examples in museum collections; however, smaller gowns were the ones that were most likely kept as they were quickly outgrown. Unlike in today's fast fashion and disposable society, expensive pieces were kept - sometimes refashioned and sometimes not. Regardless of this, we're so lucky to have been able to exhibit this gown as a part of Botetourt's 250th anniversary exhibit. Its decorative qualities and relationship to Botetourt's material culture are outstanding.

Here's the photographic process in which the piece was dressed. As I mentioned earlier, the mannequin had already been padded out and plumped, with the underpinnings sewn to the mannequin. Gretchen dressed Ann, using entomological pins to secure the waistline. Because it's an empire style waist, and the cording originally securing the dress at the back shouldn't be used, the pins help support and keep the dress in place without pulling. The arms were carefully inserted, arranged so the fluff wasn't visible, and the head and wig were put in place. Ultimately, not extremely complicated in the grand scheme of costume mounting!

The exhibit closes November 2, 2021, and Gretchen will be back to undress and de-install Ann's dress before being packed and shipped back to Colonial Williamsburg.

If you have some time, and are interested in hearing a broad spectrum q&a with Colonial Williamsburg's textile conservators, check out the program below. I must confess, I haven't had time to watch all of it, and I don't know if they discuss the process that this particular dress went through to come to us for exhibition, or if it's just generic costume discussion, but it's a great look into the textile conservation lab and Colonial Williamsburg's textile storage!

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