Not So Run-of-the-Mill

The best part about collecting textiles is getting to really look at them.  Books just can’t show enough details, and in museums, the few textiles that are on display are usually set too far back to see well.  But when you can look at a textile close-up, over and over, you notice new details each time.

1850s cotton dress

This dress is one of my favorite finds.  The cream-colored cotton muslin feels light and cool.  The cut is simple and supple. Every detail is executed perfectly, from the weave pattern of tiny diamonds, to the crisp print of scalloped lines and dots, to the miniscule even hand stitches in the construction.

waist detail

Since it is so simple, it is not an easy dress to date.  It doesn’t have the strong characteristics of more fashionable dresses, and since people usually wore their best clothes for photographs, there isn’t a lot of documentation about everyday clothes.  I did once see three similar dresses in an article in a reenacting magazine, The Citizens’ Companion, and they were described as day dresses of the 1850s.  A museum curator friend I consulted also believed this dress was from the 1850s.  To me, its very simplicity is evidence that it was made before sewing machines were readily available – once they were, clothes got much more elaborate, with tucks, trims, and ruffles.

There are so many things I wish I knew about this dress.  Where was the fabric woven?  Where was the dress made?  Was it made by the person who wore it, or by a professional seamstress?  Is its careful construction typical of its time period, or is it outstanding in its craftsmanship? In an era when most women had only a few dresses, what made the owner choose this fabric?  Was it worn for special occasions? How did it get to Texas? Why was it kept for so many years?

I bought it at an antique shop in Montgomery, Texas, in the 1990s, for only $28. It does have several mended tears, but I think the real reason it didn’t cost much was because it isn’t fancy silk, satin, or lace.  Which is exactly why I love it.

Costume Fanatics or Reenactors – here are the technical details of construction.

The bodice has a lining of plain white linen that fastens with a row of hooks and eyes. There are 5 stays sewn in, and I think they are whalebone. The bodice itself only hooks at the very top and at the waist.

bodice lining

bone stays

hem detail

The skirt is made of 5 lengths of fabric (a yard wide) cartridge pleated to a waistband.  The circumference at the waist is 24″, and at the hem is 180″.






The full width of fabric on the back is cartridge pleated down to a width of about 2 inches at the waist band.  There isn’t any trim except for narrow piping of the same fabric, around the sleeves and the waist.