Friday, April 26, 2019

Finding Old-School Fashion in the Fast-Paced World

Getting dressed in the 1860s and 1870s was a complicated process. Women’s fashion included many layers and separate articles that combined to form the perfectly assembled outfit, or “costume,” as we refer to it in museums. The Gibson family women had access to designer clothing and custom-tailored dresses and gowns, which they wore to showcase their social status and fit into society. Each piece of clothing had a specific purpose or occasion to be worn. Opera gowns, morning gowns, day dresses, and tea gowns were all popular styles in the 1860s and 1870s. Much of the clothing in the Gibson House Museum’s collection dates from the 1870s and 1880s, when the matriarch, Catherine Hammond Gibson, and her daughter-in-law, Rosamond Warren Gibson, lived in the house together.  
Turquoise bodice, c.1870s
Gibson House Museum (2019.3)
When I first began cataloging the clothing from the Gibson House Museum’s collection, I was overwhelmed with how to begin. I soon found that it was not as complicated as I’d thought; cataloging artifacts is as simple as assigning an accession number and recording details about the object.

One of the first articles of clothing I cataloged was a beautifully detailed turquoise dress that has aged rather poorly. There are some tears and discolorations in the fabric, which make it more difficult to picture how it would have been worn in the 1870s or 1880s. Like many of the dresses from the Gibson House Museum’s collection, it was taken apart, either to be washed or because alterations needed to be made. Although some of the fabric is in poor condition, as a whole, the dress is exquisite; its delicate silk fringe and vivid color caught my eye.

This dress is from the late 1870s or early 1880s. It was likely a dinner gown, or worn for other formal evening events, because its material was expensive and it lacks signs of everyday wear and tear, such as perspiration stains or dirt at the hem. It is possible to date this dress because of two distinctive elements. First, it appears the dress was fitted for a bustle, since there is extra fabric at the back that is typical of the style. Bustles were popular from 1870 to 1880, although their appeal diminished over time as women’s dress reform movements advocated for less restrictive clothing. Second, the dress is bright turquoise, made from synthetic dye. Following the Industrial Revolution, synthetic dyes became the preferred medium to color clothing, as opposed to natural dyes, which provided a limited palette. 

Turquoise skirt, c.1870s
Gibson House Museum (2019.3)
The dress has machine-made silk fringe, which adorns the neckline, sleeves, skirt hem, and the additional triangular pieces of fabric. (This fabric was likely added onto the waist of the skirt for added volume, or to cover an expansion.) The dress also has a satin ribbon, which creates flounces on the front of the skirt and trims the bodice and sleeves. Although it does not carry a maker’s tag, the dress was most likely purchased from a designer in the Greater Boston area. Many of the other dresses from the Gibson House collection were designed by J. E. Chapman, a Roxbury-based dressmaker that created custom designs. The Gibson family women would have traveled to this dressmaker’s shop to be measured and attend a design consultation before having a dress custom-made.

In an era of fast fashion, it is really hard for us to understand the deep connection women of the period had to their clothing. In many ways, this is because the creation of a single dress took more time, money, and resources than it does today in an era of cheaply-made, mass-produced clothing. Although the fashions of the 1870s and 1880s are very different from what we wear today, clothing continues to provide access points for social acceptance. 

- Nicole Gauthier, Simmons University (Curatorial Intern, Spring 2019)

You can view the gown, and many other rarely-seen pieces from our collection of historic dress, at "Sketch the Story," our special interactive ArtWeek Open House on Sunday, April 28, 2019.  

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