Archive for November 4th, 2008

The Skirt Exterior


Skirt Front

Skirt Front

This is the fun part… Since the skirt is asymmetrical with overlapping pieces and numerous interconnected layers, I will go clockwise around the skirt with the descriptions/explanations.

The base skirt is gold/tan cotton, the top of which can be seen at the waist. The base skirt is gathered into the waistband and sewn by hand.

The olive apron is sewed to the base skirt on a diagonal. At first I thought this may have been a repair for a ripping apron, but that is not the case as the top of the apron is the edge of the fabric and could not have continued.

The Silk Tassels, hem pleating, and verticle pleating

The Silk Tassels, hem pleating, and verticle pleating

The apron is pleated into the side, which I shall show later. I am shamefully responsible for the spot o the lower middle apron, when I dropped some food on it as a girl. I have made no attempt to clean it, but am looking into some methods.

The gold tassels are made of silk, and sew to the bottom of three gold silk strips. The strips are back with olive silk and hand basted to the skirt. The skirt has a series of verticle pleats between the gold strips.

The entire hem is covered in three rows of very tight pleating.


Side of the skirt where the apron is gathered.

To the left is the apron draping I was talking about. The Apron is cut like a long scarf, where it’s sewn to the base skirt in the front on the diagonal. It is gathered on the side, and the gathers are covered in jet and glass bead work.


Photo of the beading, showing the gathering of the apron.

The gathering is sewn to a side/back panel, which is edged in gold silk rope. So, the scarf-like apron holds it is place. More on this later.

20081104_00052To the left is a shot of the back of the skirt showing the beadwork. There is another panel, also edged in gold silk braid show here. It is basted down close to the beadwork. In the beadwork photo, you can see the gold braid in the upper left hand corner. You can also see how the apron-scarf overlaps the panel.

20081104_0006To the right is a shot of the bottom of the scarf-apron,  which overlaps the largest back panel, and is gathered and billowed near the hem. The bottom is edged in the gold silk. In the photo, you can see where the panel ends on the right hand side and gives way to the 2 rows of pleating. You can also see the gold braid along the bottom, and the gold silk that trims the end of the apron-scarf.

20081104_00011Confused? I made a drawing. If you look closely, you will see that the scarf-like apron, the right back panel (panel #1) and left back panel (panel #2) are all basted together under the beading, and at the bottom gathering of the scarf-like apron (lower right corner of the drawing). It was indeed meant to be worn with a bustle, because without a bustle, the basting locations don’t work. But it was not meant to be worn with a bustle the size of what I made.

Onto the left side…


The left side is much simpler than the right. The apron is gathered underneath the back left panel, which itself is gathered over the location. The back left panel then straightens out and is trimmed with gold braid.

As I mentioned before, the pleating at the hem goes all the way around the bottom, even when it is covered up by the two back panels.

The Underside & Lost Train

The olive silk never touches the waistband. All pieces are sewn onto the base fabric. Under the apron, panels of olive silk and the gold strips with the tassels are sewn to the base fabric about 8 inches below the waist. The distance between the olive front panels and where the apron is sewn varies because the apron is sewn on a diagonal.

20081104_0035The Bustle area has rigging: two strips of black cotton tape. Loose threads on the base fabric (the gold fabric in the pictures) suggest that the base fabric was once basted at points to the rigging. It was NOT basted to the olive silk panels, probably because the stitching would be visible since the panels are not lined and there would be nothing by visible fabric to grab on to.

Do you see the white porcelein buttons? There are five: three on the base fabric, and two on the olive silk. The fabric underneath them is gathered, probably to strengthen the fabric to hold the weight of whatever the buttons were buttoning. What do I think they were for? A detachable train. Where is it now? It very likely no longer exists.


My guess is that the train would have had the 3 layers of pleats that we see on the bottom of the hem. The idea of it having a train makes the design make much more sense. The back panels are remarkably flimsy, being unlined, and merely interfaced with mitering. It seems remarkably insubstantial compared to the busy front, and this was a time period in which the fashion was to have your back be far more complex than your front. If the back panels and so forth were just the covering to hide the train attachment mechanism, then it makes sense. It explains why the back panels are only basted together and not basted towards the front of the skirt. If a train were to be attached, it would need the extra room to spread out. Another possibility is that the two side panels were basted together as they are later, perhaps after the train was ruined.

If I were to sew a train for this gown, I would interface the top with some stiff fabric, and then button the train right side of the fabric to right side of the other fabric, so the buttons would never be seen.

20081104_0037And the Hem…

Under the pleating, the hem is trimmed with a stiff fabric. I believe it is a heavy, dense wool. There is no lining to the dress, which is not surprising. The base fabric of the gown performs the same function.

Other Examples?

In all of my searching, so far, I have yet to find another skirt quite like this one, which is more than baffling. The front is typical, but the arrangements of the overlaying back panels, the sweeping scarf-like apron, and the possibility of a train are mysterious indeed.

If any of my readers have any more information on this dress, its function, or its construction, I would very, very much appreciate it if you could comment. Thank you!

To part, I will throw in a couple of photos of the bodice and skirt together:




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Bodice Interior



Interior of the bodice.

Interior of the bodice.

The bodice is interlined with gold-colored silk with a slight herringbone pattern. The exterior seams are piped with olive satin piping and interfaced in olive satin. The interior seams are finished off with gold whipstiching. A piece of wool tape is attached to the seam excess on the inside (see middle of bodice inside photo) that holds the side back panels together, relieving tension on the waist. The bodice pieces are machine sewed with very tiny stitches, but some of the work, including the seam finishing and the bone casings, is obviously done by hand.

Curiously enough, it looks as though they fit the bodice the same way that I fit mine: by basting it together, pinning, and then making the final stitches. Where the two side back pieces are joined to the side fronts, it looks as though they originally had the bodice fit loser in the area between the waist and the bust as there is some very rough stitching that doesn’t match the other stitches on the seam excess that was not removed. It is not a refitting, the seam excess was cut to coordinate with the final stitches. Also, it is very roughly done. There is similar stitching on the seam excess on the front seams as well, though it’s not so obvious. I had to lift the bone casings to view it. There is no such stitching on the center back seams and the seams joining the center back panels to the side back panels, suggesting that there was a decision to not fit at that section. The back was meant to be very straight.


The bone casing is attached to the seam excess

bone casings attached to the seam excess

There are 6 bones, attached to the seam excess along the front darts and between the front and back pieces. They aren’t very long. The dart bones do not go all the way to the top of the dart. They start an inch and a half below the waist, and end an inch and a half below the top of the dart. The side bone goes a little longer. The start two inches above the bottom of the bodice, and end two inched below the arm hole.

I have a correction to make about the front, as I made an error in my previous post. The front is cut in one piece with two darts on each side. It is not two pieces on each side with 1 dart. I suppose the dress maker could get away with fewer pieces on the front since our wearer was not so buxom.

An interior tab closes at the waist with 3 hooks and eyes

Another curious device employed to relieve tension across the waist and on the buttons was a waist tab sewn to the seam excess of the front dart extending across the bone casings. That would have kept it rigid and unmoving. It closes across the waist with four hooks and eyes, and removes pressure from the buttons. In other words, what really closes the bodice and takes the pressure of the closure is this little tab. The buttons just hold the bodice fronts in place. I remember that also from wearing the dress when I was a little girl.

I had photos of the armholes, but they didn’t come out very well. They are finished off with a tape made of brushed yellow/cream-colored cotton. The same cotton is used as the lining material for the arms, whose seams are finished off with whipstitching. The two pieced arms are gathered very slightly at the top, around The bottom of the arms, where the olive pleating is attached, is lined in olive silk. The lace is attached at the top of the lining, where the top row of pleating starts.



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After examining my olive gown (see first post for background), I have concluded that she is a Natural Form gown going into the second bustle period and not a late bustle. That would put her at about 1884 to 1885. When you are young, objects seem larger, and I remembered a great deal of space in the behind. But now that I see her hanging on the dress dummy, I realize that although she was meant for a bustle, it was a petite one. Also, my 11 year old mind had a hard time comprehending all the swathing and draping on the back of the skirt, and I forgot about it.
I really do think the gown was made for a young woman. First, it is far shorter than I remembered it, being made for someone five feet or less. It is true that women were indeed shorter then. But although the waist is 25″, the bust is tiny at 29.5″ (Remember, she would have had clothes on under the gown that probably would have tried to enhance her bust – a chemise with yoke tucks, a corset possible with lace at the bust, a corset cover). Though this may be circumstantial evidence, the two buttons that are missing are those just above the waist at at the bust line, suggesting that they received some strain. If the gown belonged to a young women and say, she either matured or became pregnant, her bust size would increase and she could no longer wear the gown. This would also account for the very limited amount of wear. There are some stains close to the hemline, but no wear. There is a big spot (size of a nickle) on the apron of the skirt that I think I was responsible for when I wore it as a girl, but no wear.

Due to poorer nutrition, women would often hit menarche at a later date. If the gown were made for, say, a fourteen to sixteen year old from a very well-to-do family as her best gown, she would have worn it little before it no longer fit. If she were an only daughter – or had very picky younger sisters who would refuse to wear out-of-date fashions – the gown wouldn’t be worn again. In further support of this argument, the natural form period was rather brief, and the swathed, form-fitting skirts, would not be appreciated too many years after they were worn. There is also the morose possibility that her small bust size could account for her being sickly and she died. Or she may have died young sickly or no.

And then there is the top of the skirt, which has a great deal of ripping. This is the hardest evidence to reconcile. I know that there was some when we bought the dress, but I likely contributed to it when I was carelessly flouncing around in abandon. The bodice covers much of it up. But if the dress had started to wear too strongly up at the top, then the owner may have decided to no longer wear it. In such cases, though, it would make sense that the buttons, lace, and beading would be removed and put on another gown, but they weren’t. Either the dress was very lucky in that it was forgotten about and not cut up, or someone had a sentimental attachment to the gown.

My mom purchased the dress in Canandaigua sometime in the 1980s when it was already over a hundred years old. It had been stored somewhere very dry (probably an attic), and pressed very flat, resulting in tearing where the folds were. Some parts of the gown are in fantastic shape, and look as though they were brand new and could take a beating. Other parts, particularly the frothy apron and draping, didn’t survive as well and are brittle. It is a safe assessment to say that ever part that was lined lasted and looks sturdy. Since this will be a lengthy post with lots of pictures, I will post it in segments.


Bodice Front

Bodice Front

Lovely painted Mother of Pearl Buttons

The Bodice is front closing with a gathered bib. The front portion is made of four peices: two narrow center portions, and then two side fronts with a bottom seam to bust-line dart.  A gathered panel goes around the neckline – which is trimmed with lace – and closes with hooks and eyes over the bib, requiring a strict procedure to close the bodice. It’s quite beautiful really, and makes the mechanics mysterious. The mother of pearl buttons go all the way to the neck. Two are missing and have been for as long as we’ve owned the gown. The ones that are missing are in the middle, between the waist and the breast line, so I am imagining that they popped off from wear.


A hook on the inside of the bib attaches to the small stiches on the breast of the bodice.

The underside of the Yoke

The underside of the Bib

The underside of the bib is lined in yellow silk. It covers the buttons on the top of the bodice, and attaches to the opposite side with a hook. There is a shot below that shows the pleating on the neckline. The sleeves have three rows of pleating, the top row being a slightly lighter shade of olive satin. The lace is attached to the inside of the sleeve. It is off yellow with age, but was probably white or cream.

Pleating on the Collar

Pleating on the Collar

Pleating and lace on the Sleeves

Pleating and lace on the Sleeves

The back is made up of four pieces with a center back seam. There is a split in the center seam starting slightly below the waist. Around the split is lighter satin pleating and jet bead work There is a picture of this below.

Back Peplum Pleating

Back Peplum Pleating

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