The 19th Century Dresses Come Out for their Close-ups

Written by: Alden O'Brien, DAR Museum Curator of Costumes and Textiles
September 27, 2017

In August, the DAR Museum’s summer intern Maria Blasio and former intern Alison Polivka and I spent several days photographing dresses that range from 1830 to 1870. Many have been photographed when dressed for an exhibit, but others have only been taken on a hanger or lying flat on a table, so having them dressed on manikins was a big improvement. I’ll detail some of the dresses we photographed and explain some of the things we noticed in the process.

Photographing dresses isn’t as easy as snapping a shot of a teapot or a chair—nor is it as easy as just putting it on the manikin. We have special manikins designed for display of 18th and 19th century dresses. And that’s just the beginning!  We added a few petticoats for the 1830s, and just kept adding more as we worked our way through to the 1860s, as skirts just kept getting bigger until 1870. If we’d been doing this for an exhibit, we would have made sure everything fit and draped perfectly; and we would have made period-correct wigs!

Take a look at the before and after of this 1860s dress where it’s hanging on a hanger and then on a manikin with petticoats and just a little filling out of the bodice. It’s amazing what a huge difference this makes in the look of the dress.

We have a three-piece ensemble from 1870--the very beginning of the bustle period. Here’s how it looked when it was photographed with just the bodice and overskirt when it first arrived. With the right manikin plus petticoats, you get a much better idea of how it looked when it was worn.

While handling garments, you notice things you might have missed before.  We had what we thought was a basic mid-1860s dress. On the manikin, she was a great example of 1866-67, when skirts flattened in front and sent the fullness to the back. But hiding underneath her current straight waistline, is a pointed bodice! This dress’s owner had updated her dress after 1864 (when the pointed bodice was briefly in style) by covering up the points (and possibly cutting out some skirt fullness) to flatten it in about 1866. This much was obvious.

But now, we noticed three sets of ties in the skirt lining. These were for looping up the back of the skirt into a bustle, to update it further around 1869-1870. Pretty thrifty! (The sleeves would have been full length, but have been cut off later.) Tying these strings, we had a whole new dress. It turned into a fantastic example of the early bustle era—just by tying up three sets of silk ribbons! Here’s the result. And here’s a comparison of the two silhouettes.

As we dressed it, this dress revealed the complexities of its history and caused us to reevaluate the date we had previously assigned it.

View the slideshow to see more!

Putting our catalog online in the DAR Museum Collection Database will involve examining each object afresh, adding to our descriptions as needed, and checking that all our information is accurate and complete.  With two volunteers who are costume historians, and a new graduate school intern, we are scheduling more photo sessions for dresses from before and after this period as well. Before long, we’ll be adding dresses to the Collection Database (as well as bags, shoes, samplers, and quilts), so keep checking back to see what’s there.

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