Curator's Choice : Stars of the Historic Costume Collection
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The clothing we wear today is often seen as disposable and replaceable. We use the item until we tire of it, for whatever reason, casting it to the back of our wardrobe to be forgotten and eventually thrown away. The idea of refitting the fabric of our castaway garments is unthinkable, both literally and practically. Nonetheless, refitting or "turning" garments into new and fashionable pieces has been practiced for hundreds of years. Without access to considerable wealth in the pre-Industrial western world, the value and accessibility of clothing was a matter of great economic consideration. When one's silk dress became faded, torn, or stained the dress was not deemed terminal. The fabric of the dress would often be harvested; the stitches unpicked and the fabric pressed, revealing "fresh" yardage for something new. This fabric could then be recut and refitted as tastes of the wearer dictated. Older styles were adapted into more modern styles, across decades and even generations. Great-grandmother's wedding dress may have lived multiple lives.
The expense itself of fine textiles contributed to this practice of inter-generational fabric economy. Costly yardage would be passed down and safeguarded within families lucky enough to be in possession of such treasures.
Such is the story of this 1842-1846 evening dress of China silk, the origin of which dates sixty years earlier in the 1780s. The silk, as the name implies, was woven in China. Thin green woven stripes punctuate the pale cream ground. Dozens of floral vines were then hand-painted onto the entirety of the fabric, covered in sundry colorful flowers, leaves, and a few small thorns here and there. Variation between the execution of the individual flowers reveals that multiple artists contributed to the undertaking of this painted garden.
We see 18th century English gowns made of this fabric, imported from Asia, often being "turned" by the 1840s. Great-grandmother's hand-painted China silk dress was converted into an evening gown in the latest style. The bodice is elongated with a slight point at the center front. The wide neckline and pointed v of the pleated bertha contribute to this elongated eyeline. The sleeves are short with pleated cuffs, mimicking the pleats of the bertha, and are filled with embroidered netting. Fine piping, de rigueur by the 1840s, is found at the armscye, the neckline, and the low pointed waistline.
The bodice closes at the back with hook and eyes, and is lined with fine cotton broadcloth. Stays can be found sewn into the lining via channels at center front, sides, and center back. The seams of the lining are left unfinished. The skirt is attached with gauging, or cartridge pleating, along the bottom edge of the bodice. The silk of the skirt is stiffened with a layer of horsehair gauze, and has a deep hem.
The story of this evening gown spans four different centuries, three continents, and countless generations of admirers. Through this gown, fashion can be seen as a literal manifestation of familial heritage, in addition to the preservation of art.
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