Hello history lovers! I’ve got something a bit different for you all today. Part of the point of this blog is to showcase the many tricks of the trade being taught to me over the course of my internship. While I mainly focus my attention on the Center’s fine arts collection, occasionally I venture forth from the art racks to delve into other areas of work. For instance, textiles!
The History Center is in possession of a truly impressive number of dresses, spanning not only decades but centuries. We’ve got a wedding dress on hand that’s from the 1840s even. Something I’ve noticed in historical preservation is that people hang on to what they deem important. Our story this week revolves around a formal dress with a very noteworthy life and the work we did to showcase this important piece of history.
A couple of weeks ago I got the opportunity to help out my boss with photographing a long-trained formal dress, this one from 1885. What makes this dress a bit different from others is that it was worn at President Grover Cleveland’s inauguration. It’s a pretty awesome find and I got the chance to help coax this dress on a mannequin.
The thing you have to keep in mind about working with dresses from this time period is that the women who wore them were tiny. I’m talking less than 5 foot 5 inches and a size 0, if that. Charlotte Lowry, the woman who owned this dress, was slightly taller than the mannequin we used (we know this based on how the train lay) and with a smaller bust. If you look at the pictures I took, you can get an idea of how small women were back then.
The tiny forms are only part of the difficulties that come with displaying an old dress like this. A lot of care has to go into handling and navigating the dress with as much care placed on avoiding stress to the fabric as possible. This dress for example, has a very long train attached to its bustle (the bump on the butt). It took three people to lift the dress over the mannequin’s head so that the weight of the material wouldn’t stress the seams. A lot of artifact handling is built upon patience and care because once it’s ripped, that’s it. Thankfully we managed just fine with no casualties to speak of.
Once the dress was finally on the mannequin, half the battle was won. A cool fact about these dresses is that most were customizable. Fitted dresses were pretty expensive back then and even the wealthy could only afford so many. To save money and get the most out of what they bought, many dresses came with different inserts and removable trim so as to make one dress look like three. The pale pink apron, bust, and trim all had to be attached separately from the main dress. Using a lot of care, ingenuity, and a few well-placed hat pins, we were able to get a good idea of what the dress looked like when it was worn. This actually came with a second set of attachments too, a beautiful gold and black rose patterned themed set, but we were unable to get photos of it fully inserted. Regardless, the creativeness of dress makers back then is very commendable.
While this isn’t much of a mystery, it was a really fun learning experience for me that I wanted to share with all of you out there. It definitely made me think back on my childhood, seeing my mom’s wedding dress neatly stored and full of memories.
Museum work is keyed toward preserving the past for the future, and I think this formal dress resonates with all of us who have held on to precious memories in all the ways we can, be it through memory alone or in the clothing we wore when living it. Just think, one day that one concert t-shirt or that signed jersey might be on a mannequin, preserved for the occasions it witnessed and the memories it held.