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 If she were an only daughter – or had very picky younger sisters who would refuse to wear out-of-date fashions – the gown wouldn’t be worn again.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.
THE BODICE EXTERIOR
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.
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.
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.