|Dress – 1864-67 – cotton – The Met|
< soapbox >
Every once in awhile some new statements will pop up in this community that make me balk. These statements usually come along with the term “always” or “never,” (or sometimes both) when talking historical dress.
Here are some doozies I’ve run into over the years:
“18th century and Regency shoes were always straight lasted”
“Victorian gowns never showed ankle.”
“Mourning dress is always black, and black gowns are always mourning gowns”
“18th century gowns were always trimmed in self-fabric”
…and most recently…
“Solid colored cotton dresses did not exist in the 19th century. Extant solid colored dresses have always been found to be wool, silk, a combination fibre, etc.”
Every single one of those statements is false.
Yes, I said bollocks.
|Another view of the dress above, without the jacket. Dress – 1864-67 – cotton – American – The Met|
As soon as a statement like one of these comes up, I try to figure out where it came from. I can start by canceling out that it came from any credible museum researcher or dress historian. I’ve been schooled by more than a few museum professionals on the use of definitive language when describing what we think we know.
At first this frustrated me. It seemed like I couldn’t get a straight answer out of my museum contacts about seemingly simple stuff – what kind of fabric an extant gown was made from, or what exactly was this type of dress called, etc. I didn’t like their fluffy answers; I wanted things to be black and white. The problem is that with dress history, things aren’t black and white. Jan Loverin, curator of the Marjorie Russell Textile Museum, would not tell me that a certain fabric was wool because it had not been examined under a microscope and confirmed that the fibre was indeed wool. Abby Cox, apprentice milliner in Colonial Williamsburg and holding a Master of Letters in Decorative Arts and Design History from the University of Glasgow, would not give me a solid definition of a Robe a la Turque because there is no definitive description in primary source material.
|Dress- 1860s- American – cotton – The Met|
|Dress (girl’s) – 1837-39 – cotton – American – The Met|
The important point here is that these professional would not tell me these things. When I asked Jan Loverin about this, she told me that trained curators, historians, and researchers know that their field of study is constantly changing and it’s simply inappropriate and irresponsible to make definitive statements. New information is uncovered regularly, changing our knowledge and understanding of the past.
|Dress (girl’s) – 1886-88 – cotton – American – The Met|
Historical dress research is in no way static – just think about the number of extant garments we have in museums, and how many may be in private collections, and how many are languishing in somebody’s attic or basement. In addition to extant garments, think about how many other primary source materials we have – paintings and prints, periodicals and novels, advertisements, fashion plates, private letters. Do you see the problem? When a statement like “colored cotton dresses did not exist in the 19th century” is made, I must counter with, “but have you examined every 19th century gown surviving in every collection in the world? Have you read every magazine, seen every fashion plate and their descriptions, read every letter surviving from that time period?”
|Lilac colored tamboured muslin (cotton) day dress – 1860s- The Glasgow Story – click through for original record|
When statements like these are made, it’s a challenge. Usually it takes only a short time of searching to find examples that negate the statement categorically, which is why I’m illustrating this post with a whole series of solid colored 19th century gowns.
Instead of making statements like “Solid colored cotton dresses did not exist in the 19th century,” instead say something along these lines:
“Of the extant 19th century garments I have studied in the collections of ________ and _________, I found what appeared to be 10 printed cottons, 20 solid colored silk, and 5 solid colored wool gowns.”
See the difference?
|Day dress – 1810-1815 – cotton – Norway – Digitalt Museum|
You might think I’m mincing words and being overly sensitive about this, but I encourage you instead to think about how definitive statements impact our hobby.
And for the record, I’ve been guilty in the past of using the dreaded “always” and “never,” and you know what? Each time I’ve done that, I’ve been proven wrong within minutes. And I felt really foolish for being so unbending in an area of research that is anything but static.
The broader lesson here is to be open and curious in dress research, and search for the answers to your questions. Want to make a mid-Victorian gown in a solid-colored cotton? Look for primary sources supporting your idea instead of going off of rumor and misinformation.
< / soapbox >
A note about what I found for solid colored 19th century gowns: I looked for primarily mid-Victorian dresses (though included a couple earlier and later examples in this post to show transition and technology) specifically in solid colored cotton, so omitted white and ivory cotton garments, of which there are many. I did find that the majority of cotton dresses surviving in the museum collections I searched were printed calicos. I also noticed that the colored cotton gowns I found were not without decoration, some more than others, as illustrated above. If I were making a decision to sew a mid-Victorian day dress in solid colored cotton, I would most likely go for a light shade such as lavender, pink, or tan, and plan on decorating it with applied trim. However, this does not mean that solid colored cotton gowns in dark colors didn’t exist; it only means that in my short search I did not find any, but that with more research I may find evidence of some in the future.