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Dress discoveries: the importance of ‘slow seeing’ when working with dress collections

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In a couple of my previous blog posts I talked about discovering maker’s marks inside of garments and the information that can be gleaned from such a discovery. In this post I want to discuss some of the other interesting things that the Fashion Curator, Charlotte McReynolds, and I found whilst preparing the clothing for display in the La Belle Époque exhibition.

Dress historians Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim, advocate for a ‘slow approach to seeing’ in their publication The dress detective: a practical guide to object-based research in fashion.1 Even for people who work with collections, having the time to ‘slowly see’ clothing and to make discoveries about the objects we work with is, unfortunately, a rare luxury. When preparing the costume mounts for the clothing in the La Belle Époque exhibition, Charlotte and I had some time to ‘slowly see’ the clothing and we made some wonderful discoveries.


Evidence of alterations

When preparing a costume mount to exhibit clothing, you start by measuring the garments going on display so that you can make the mount the correct size to properly support the clothes. Measuring the garments reveals rich information! We discovered that some of the clothing had been altered since it was initially made, either to fit the owner whose body had changed shape, or the measurements indicated that the clothing had been altered to fit a different person than the original owner of the garment. Essentially, measuring historic clothing can contribute to our understanding of the material life of the object and how it was worn and adapted in the past!


Bodies shapes of people in the past

Analysing clothing and spending time investigating the garments also reveals rich information about historic bodies. By measuring clothing, you can myth-bust common perceptions of people in history! In Linda Baumgarten’s book, What clothes reveal,2 she argues in favour of the careful analysis of a piece of clothing to learn about the original wearer which can be used to challenge ideas we have of people in the past. A common belief is that formerly people were much smaller in body shape and height than they are today. Of course, there is a lot of scientific evidence that people have become taller over time. However, analysing people’s clothing evidences people of varied heights. When preparing two Edwardian dresses for display in the exhibition made between 1905 and 1909, we realised that one woman must have been about 5ft 3in and the woman who originally wore the second dress must have been at least 5ft 10in! This was surely tall at the time, given that the height is considered tall for a woman today! We affectionately nicknamed the dress worn by the 5ft 10in woman, ‘Amazonica’ owing to her tall stature!

Image: Photograph of the two Edwardian dresses in the exhibition case. The dress on the left has been placed on a plinth to raise the height beside the dress on the right whose original wearer was about 5ft 10in.
Photograph of the two Edwardian dresses in the exhibition case. The dress on the left has been placed on a plinth to raise the height beside the dress on the right whose original wearer was about 5ft 10in.

Another common myth about women’s bodies in the past is that women were much slimmer and more petite than women are today. Visual representations of the female corseted body, particularly promoted in period dramas, contribute to this impression. Of course, corsets did alter women’s bodies, but women were not necessarily smaller in the past. When measuring a dress from the late 1860s, we discovered that the bust measurement was 42 inches. This measurement reflected the wearer’s corseted body measurements. The other measurements for the waist and hip areas of the dress, also reflected that the original wearer was quite curvy.

Image: Photograph on the left of the ensemble from the late 1860s laid flat for measurement. Photograph on the right is of the mounted ensemble.
Photograph on the left of the ensemble from the late 1860s laid flat for measurement. Photograph on the right is of the mounted ensemble.

Hidden pockets

I don’t know a woman who doesn’t love pockets! So many women’s clothes are made without them and it can be very frustrating. In the nineteenth-century, concealed pockets were included in women’s clothing in all sorts of places. Sometimes they were sewn into a skirt waistband, sometimes they were hidden inside a petticoat, they were even sometimes sewn inside a bodice. When preparing clothing for the exhibition, we found concealed pockets in three ensembles. They were concealed under bustles or behind the closure of a skirt. To say that I was excited by the discovery of these pockets is an understatement!

Image: Photographs of a pocket we found concealed behind a bustle in an ensemble.
Photographs of a pocket we found concealed behind a bustle in an ensemble.
Image: A pocket we found behind the closure of a skirt.
A pocket we found behind the closure of a skirt.

Identifying fabrics and embellishments

Spending time with the clothing also gave us the opportunity to identify materials. For example, we realised that a dress that was part of a Donegal woman’s wedding trousseau had metal beads on the embellishments, when we initially thought that they were glass beads. Additionally, some of the garments going on display were new acquisitions to the collection, and we analysed the materials and documented the information we discovered. For example, one new acquisition to the collection that we worked with is an amazing court dress from 1911 that originally belonged to Elizabeth Balfour Laidlaw (nee Clark). Elizabeth was an American textile heiress and wife of Thomas Kennedy Laidlaw, a Scottish-born Irish racehorse owner and breeder who was a high sheriff of Dublin and was later appointed to the Privy Council. Elizabeth and Thomas were very involved in the social life of Dublin Castle.

Image: Court dress worn by Elizabeth Balfour Clark, 1911 BELUM.T2019
Court dress worn by Elizabeth Balfour Clark, 1911 BELUM.T2019

The dress and train were worn by Elizabeth to meet the King and Queen at Dublin Castle. The dress is made of Irish crochet and panels of Brussels lace. The dress has an incredible train with hand-embroidered floral motifs. We spent some time analysing the meaning and symbolism of the floral motifs. We realised that the flowers were irises. In floriology, the iris commonly symbolises wisdom, hope, trust and valour. The iris is also associated with royalty owing to its purple colour, a colour which is traditionally associated with royalty. The symbolism would fit with the occasion, as the train was worn by Elizabeth when meeting the King and Queen. We also considered that the colours of the floral embroidery on the train could be symbolic of suffrage activism. The floral motifs are embroidered with green, white and violet threads and beads. These were the suffrage colours used to symbolise, ‘Give Women Votes’. As the train and dress were worn in 1911, a time when suffrage activism was intensifying in Ireland and Britain, it seems possible that there may have been some suffrage symbolism in the train. Perhaps Elizabeth was making a political statement about ‘votes for women’ through her choice of attire!

Image: Close up photographs of the iris embroidery on the train of the court dress, BELUM.T2019
Close up photographs of the iris embroidery on the train of the court dress, BELUM.T2019

Hidden dragon

I asked fashion curator, Charlotte McReynolds, what her favourite discovery was when we spent time ‘slowly seeing’ the objects from the fashion collection. After we de-installed the exhibition ‘Vice Versa’, which Charlotte curated to explore the influence of menswear on womenswear and vice versa!, we spent some time packing away the clothing that had been on display in the exhibition. When Charlotte was folding a Chinese silk robe, she realised that when the sleeves were folded together, they made the image of a dragon. This was a very significant discovery, and I’ll explain why!

Image: Chinese Imperial silk robe, BELUM.T158
Chinese Imperial silk robe, BELUM.T158

The garment is a silk satin weave with silk embroidery noblewoman’s dragon robe, or longpao. It dates from the late Qing dynasty, around 1850-1899. The robe is said to have once belonged to the Dowager Empress of China. These dragon robes were worn on formal occasions by high-ranking members of the Chinese imperial family. The robes were a part of the Qing court dress system, which was complex and detail orientated. In fact, there was a very intricate system behind the colours, designs and features on the robes.3 The dragon insignia on the front and back of the robes were assigned to members of the imperial family according to their status. Before the discovery Charlotte knew that there were nine five clawed dragons on the robe. This included one ‘hidden dragon’ behind a front fold, that would have been invisible to onlookers. When Charlotte discovered a new dragon when folding the robe, she realised that there was a tenth dragon! The tenth dragon only appears when the robe is folded in such a way that the sleeves meet. The large number of dragons and the number of claws indicates that the robe belonged to a very high-ranking member of the Chinese imperial family.

Image: The tenth dragon on the Chinese imperial robe found by Fashion Curator, Charlotte McReynolds
The tenth dragon on the Chinese imperial robe found by Fashion Curator, Charlotte McReynolds

I hope you have enjoyed reading about the benefits of investing the time and resources into ‘slowly seeing’ clothing and the discoveries that can be made about the objects! We learnt new things about the cut, construction, and embellishments on the clothes, evidence of how the clothes were worn, used, or altered across time, and so much more!

1L. Baumgarten, What clothes reveal: the language of clothing in colonial and federal America (New Haven, 2002), pp 52-75.

2I. Mida and A. Kim, The dress detective: a practical guide to object-based research in fashion (London, 2015), p. 99.

3Sotheby’s ‘Dragon robe decoded’, 23 May 2019