The Original 1916 – 1921 Party Dress

Well, this is a topic I can genuinely say I haven’t blogged about before. It’s amazing what send us down what rabbit holes.

Metal thread embroidery with couched metal. These are all over the skirt of the dress, plus a different motif in the same materials on the bodice.

What were fashionable ladies wearing for soirees in the late 19teens? What, 100 years ago, was the latest, hottest thing? I ask this question because I’ve acquired an antique gown of this quite specific period, and I want to know more about it.

Straight out of the shipping box.

I am dating this gown myself. It has no provenance and no label, but the style is familiar in that “I swear I’ve seen something like this somewhere before” kind of way. I am tentatively dating the dress to about a 5 years span based on the side swags, length of skirt, construction of the interior bodice, the looseness of the top bodice, the position of the waist, and overall silhouette and trends I find for those years, primarily 1917/18.

Dress, 1916, The Met. This one shares some traits with mine, namely the side swags, the big bow at the back, the loose bodice (here shown is the back of the gown)

Dress, 1917-20, The Met – again with the side swags and the loose bodice with sheer straps.
Dress by Lucille, 1919, The Met
Wedding Gown by Lucile, 1916, OSU
Dress, 1915-18, Augusta Auctions
Dress, 1921, Wayne State University – this one has quite a few similarities
Dress, c. 1916,

My new old dress is silk with embroidery and couched metal thread bows. The chiffon sleeves mount to net straps, the silk bodice to a super-fine silk underbodice, and there is a considerable grosgrain staybelt. All closes with hooks and snaps at the center back.

The skirt is gathered at the sides and creates that “butterfly” effect at the back, along with a large bow. It is hand and machine sewn, and some areas are finished nicely while others are left raw. There appears to have been a ruching stitch on the top part of each sleeve, now gone, but the tucks for the underside are still there.

The back is quite interesting with the swags and the bow, which needs tacking back into position. 

Was it a party dress? Was it a wedding dress? Oh the stories we wish these old clothes could tell…

I have a restoration plan for this dress. When I received it, there was quite a lot of staining around the upper part of the bodice, some of which lead to holes and tears in the silk. There was also the usual underarm damage and a few rust spots here and there. The gown certainly isn’t flawless, but on the scale of disintegration of antique clothes, this one isn’t very far gone. It can be conserved without endless tedious work, so conserve it I shall. Ultimately, of course, I hope to wear this dress for a special occasion or at least a photo shoot.

The staining ran horizontally across the front of the bodice. It hardened the silk and caused the hole and cracking along the edge. This appears to have rinsed out so at least it won’t continue to deteriorate.

My action plan has started with cleaning. Thanks to Damask Raven, AKA The Silk Washing Guru, I determined that I could carefully soak this dress in cold water with a little Woolite, plus vinegar and a tiny amount of conditioner in the rinse water. I’ve laid it flat to dry and upon initial inspection I see that the majority of the staining, especially the large areas on the bodice, have come out.

My next step is to stabilize the holes and shattered bits with conservation mesh. Then I will create a “suspension system” that will allow the gown to be worn without stressing the chiffon shoulders. Lastly I will put protection materials in the underarms, replace a few missing beads, and tack any fallen bits back to where they should be.


    • Lauren Stowell

      June 22, 2016 at 12:17 AM

      If only! I'm feeling a little less excited about it today. I don't think it's going to be wearable after all, at least not by me. Maybe one very special photo shoot with one very small girl…

  • Evie

    June 22, 2016 at 5:17 AM

    What is conservation mesh? I have silk piece (kind of like a delicate belted sheer silk embroidered poncho, no idea what call it) from the 20s that has a tear in the belt area that has been repaired a bit raggedly and could use some better "help". It usually just decorated my wall but i wear it occasionally.

    • Lauren Stowell

      June 22, 2016 at 9:01 PM

      Conservation mesh is any lightweight, non-obtrusive fabric that is used to secure delicate areas. It's often nylon net, mesh, organza, or something similarly strong but lightweight and sheer. It's commonly used beneath the fabric, but sometimes you see it applied on top of the fabric too.

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