I find great joy in the pursuit of researching and making historical clothing. Here on the blog, I post most often about the garments I make for myself, but I rarely post about commissions to make custom historical garments for private individuals, museums, historical institutions, etc. Today’s post is different from the usual in that I’m going to share a commission project with you!
This commission came about through the kindness of Myrthe, who blogs at Atelier Nostalgia. (And how fitting, that we were just communicating about how wonderful it is to connect with people who love historical clothes from around the world!) The commission was from the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA-MA).
The NSCDA-MA owns the beautiful William Hickling Prescott House in Boston, which was built in 1808 and upgraded throughout the 19th century. The NSCDA-MA website (linked above) shares many more details about the various owners of the house and its architecture. In addition to the house itself, the NSCDA-MA also holds a wonderful collection of historical clothing, some items of which have been used for display purposes throughout the house (though most of the garments are in storage and only available for research visits by appointment). Unfortunately, historical garments are often not suited to permanent display as they can be made of delicate fabrics that can be damaged by light, dust, and gravity, just to name a few possible problems. The NSCDA-MA was looking for custom made historical dresses to display instead of the extant historic garments and I was very excited to work with them to make that goal a reality!
The commission involved two dresses: one from about 1810 and one from about 1845. The two dresses haven’t been mounted yet and aren’t available to visit due to ongoing closures, but I hope to eventually go see them in one of the glorious rooms of the house. For now we’ll have to make do with flat photos that were taken for my own archival purposes.
The c. 1810 dress was inspired by a few different dresses, including this c. 1810 cotton dress held by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The goal was to merge the inspiration dresses into one dress with a repeated pattern on cotton, an adjustable drawstring neck, and long sleeves. In order to support the silhouette and provide opacity I also made a bodiced petticoat to go with the dress. Below are front and back views.
Unlike the first dress, the c. 1845 dress was inspired by this specific c. 1848 silk dress held by The Met. The goal was to keep the details of The Met inspiration dress but make the new dress proportional to the measurements of the form that would be wearing it. The dress includes extra structure to help the bodice keep its shape even without a corset underneath. Below are a full length front view and a close up of the bodice.
I had lots of fun finding trimmings for this dress that recalled the original. In the case of the tassels, I combined sections of the fringe with tassel tops and vintage passementerie buttons in order to get the right look and create tassels. Below, a closeup of tassel parts and the final result.
The designs of each dress were settled on with much collaboration to determine fabrics, trimmings, style details, and more. Both patterns were individually created to fit the requirements and specifications for each dress. Both dresses use a mixture of machine sewing/modern methods on the interiors and hand finishing on the exteriors. This speeds up construction and provides the necessary foundation for the dresses even without a full set of supportive undergarments.
I love projects like this! It’s so wonderful to collaborate with others who appreciate the minute details of historical clothing while also making garments that can be used to help interpret history to the public. These sorts of projects are often initiated through word of mouth suggestions, so please reach out if you know of museums, historic sites, historical societies, etc. who are looking for this type of collaboration!