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Ladies Costume

    Roller-Printed Cotton Summer Day Dress
English or American, mid-1880s

In the late nineteenth century, women had access on a seasonal basis to an enormous variety of mass-produced printed dress cottons. Characteristic of the mid-1880s is this bold and somewhat whimsical design. Tiny white irregular shapes, graduated in size, fill the upper part of the black polka dots, set against a sheer white self-striped ground. Presented in vertical lines, they suggest rows of bubbles streaming upward. Seen through the transparent layer of the overskirt, the dots on the underskirt give the impression of shadows.

Uncomplicated in its overall construction, the three-piece dress shows off the graphic pattern to advantage. The front and back of the jacket bodice are lightly pleated from shoulder to hem, bringing the rows of dots close together—in contrast to their wide spacing on the sleeves and skirts. The overskirt reveals the judicious use of fabric often seen during the period. Probably cut from the same length, the right side gore is placed upside down while the left side gore is turned to the reverse side. Small black faceted glass buttons that form the center front closure and scallop-edged lace trimming add dainty finishing touches.


Roller-Printed Cotton Summer Day Dress - detail
Lace and Appliqué Tunic
Probably French, ca. 1910-11
Lace and Applique Tunic  

In contrast to the exaggerated S-curve of about 1900, the feminine silhouette of 1910 was straight and narrow. Fashion journals affirm the popularity of hip- and thigh-length tunics that accentuated this slim, high-waisted line as well as the extensive use of lace and openwork techniques such as broderie anglaise. This delicate tunic was likely worn over a contrasting colored lightweight silk or linen under-dress to maximize the effect of its modern elegance. On the front, the centrally placed bird with outstretched wings and extended tail surrounded by flowering orange branches reflects the profound interest in nature and stylization of forms that characterize Art Nouveau sensibility. The design is made to shape with the luxuriant plant motifs placed symmetrically along the side and center back seams, creating a flowing, rhythmic pattern around the body.


    Blue Silk Damask Dress
English, 1750-60

This robe à l’anglaise illustrates the popularity of silk damasks for women’s dress particularly in the first half of the eighteenth century. As seen here, their large-scale floral and foliate patterns with contrasting shiny and matte surfaces were shown to advantage by full-skirted gowns, made from uncut widths of fabric, that were worn over panniers. Although the design with its swirling stylized blossoms and leaves dates to the mid-century, the dress was altered probably in the 1770s, attesting to the inherent value of elaborately woven silks. Interior tapes in the skirt indicate that it was intended to be looped up in a style known as à la polonaise that came into vogue in that decade. Such modifications were common throughout most of the century and many extant dresses from the period show evidence of such updating that maximized the high cost of silk.


Blue Silk Damask
Hard Tartan Dress
English, ca. 1855-60
  Hard Tartan Dress  

Tartan has long been associated with the kilt and plaid of Highland dress and its creation is particular to Scottish weavers. The distinctive checked pattern of this twilled wool is achieved by the use of stripes of colored threads that are the same in the warp and weft directions with the selected hues arranged in sets of varying thread counts. In the resulting pattern of stripes and blocks of color called a “sett,” each section of the design mirrors the section next to it, repeating vertically and horizontally. The early nineteenth-century writings of Scottish authors James Macpherson and Sir Walter Scott were instrumental in the Highland romantic revival in which tartan came to symbolize Scottish clanship and national identity. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's acquisition of Balmoral Castle in Scotland in 1852 and their endorsement of tartan for both dress and furnishing at this royal retreat generated a craze for the fabric. In the 1850s and 1860s, women’s voluminous mantles and skirts provided ample opportunity to display these boldly geometric textiles.



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