The Housemaid’s Dress

DRESS & ESCAPISM - THE DRESS RESEARCH EXHIBITION SERIES

Anne Bissonnette, PhD, Josée Chartrand, MA,  and Katelin Karbonik co-curators of the series

Part 1 of 3: Dress Artifacts & Curatorial Practices
A Virtual (and Evolving) Exhibition
Anne Bissonnette, Lead Curator
June 30, 2020 – June 30, 2021


Home | The Blair Suit Reproduction | The Robe à la Française Reproduction | The Mid-1790s Chintz Gown | The Chemise Dress | The 1796  Reproduction Wedding Gown | The Housemaid's Dress


The housemaid's dress
Ivory floral open robe with cotton or linen lining, ivory floral bandeau, and light pink petticoat
Unknown creator and place of origin, may be American from English block-printed cotton, first made in the 1780s and altered in the mid-1790s.
Cotton plain weave
Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection, Department of Human Ecology, University of Alberta
Purchased (2018.4.1)
Mount and photographs by Anne Bissonnette©

This ensemble came to New York costume and textile dealer Titi Halle of Cora Ginsburg LLC in an old paper bag inscribed with the words “Housemaid’s dreʃs” (Figure 1).It is impossible to substantiate this provenance, but the robe, which was made of a what may have been a very costly textile, as well as the petticoat had some staining that may explain why it could have been given to a housemaid. Once again, the open robe is altered from an earlier style and difficult to document. It still possesses tapes and loops in the robe’s skirt panel to drape the skirt over the petticoat (Figure 2) as was the fashion in the 1780s (Figure 3). The robe can be draped in a similar manner, but we do not know for sure that it was despite the presence of the mechanism, which may have been and earlier mechanism that went unused in a later alteration. We do not know if it was altered significantly to fit the (very small body of the) housemaid and the latest trends. Class, context and use are seldom documented in museum records.

Figure 1
Detail of the paper bag that contained the ivory floral open robe with cotton or linen lining, ivory floral bandeau, and light pink petticoat
Unknown creator and place of origin, may be American.
Paper
Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection, Department of Human Ecology, University of Alberta
Purchased (2018.4.1d)
Photographs by Anne Bissonnette©

Figure 2
Ivory floral open robe with cotton or linen lining, ivory floral bandeau, and light pink petticoat
Unknown creator and place of origin, may be American from English block-printed cotton, first made in the 1780s and altered in the mid-1790s.
Cotton plain weave
Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection, Department of Human Ecology, University of Alberta
Purchased (2018.4.1abc)
Mount and photographs by Anne Bissonnette©

Figure 3
Hand-colored engraving on laid paper from Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français, 2e Suite d'Habillemens de Femmes à la mode. Plate H.44: “Jeune Dame en Circassienne garnie de blonde, ornée d’un ruban tigré, coeffée d’un Chapeau galant avec un chignon lâche et tressé.”
Designed by: Claude-Louis Desrais (French, 1746–1816)
Engraved by: Etienne Claude Voysard (French, 1746–about 1812)
Publisher: Esnauts et Rapilly (French, 18th century)
Paris, France, 1778
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection
www.mfa.org
Link to the museum artifact

Several Material Culture graduate students from the University of Alberta have researched this ensemble for papers in the past few years and their research and conclusions have varied significantly. Like the other chintz garment presented in this exhibition, an investigation into its textile is a significant area of research that could uncover the original garment date. The cut and construction of the ensemble could be used to determine later periods when the garment was altered. As is typically the case for altered pieces, one looks for distinguishing stylistic features to understand the artifact as it currently stands.

The use of bust darts on the bandeau appears as the most innovative feature of this transitional ensemble, signaling the significant changes to dress behaviours in the 1790s. The bust darts create the delineation of individual breasts which signals a critical change in underpinnings away from traditional conical stays that compress and elevate the bosom. Though rare, surviving foundational garments from the 1790s exist. One example has gathered fabric "cups" over each breasts, while maintaining some traditional construction features, for example the use of waist tabs, which no longer sit at the natural waist in shorter transitional models. Old habits die hard! As early as 1793, the “Nouveau Dictionnaire français mentions the introduction of quilted and unboned “corsets,” instead of stays in a state of undress.”[1] 1795 is when shorter, lesser-boned transitional stays that separate and support individual breasts may have emerged in the United States.[2] Women may not have adopted this new aesthetic rapidly, but, when they did, other types of underpinnings, such as the shift, may have been modified with gussets at the chest to create a better fit (Figure 4).

 

Figure 4
White cotton shift with “Ulnette” monogram and gussets at the chest
Unknown creator and place of origin, mid 1790s to early to mid 1800s
Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection, Department of Human Ecology, University of Alberta
Donated by Titi Halle, Cora Ginsburg LLC (2019.9.42)
Mount, photographs, and montage by Anne Bissonnette©

When observing this ensemble, we can look at its construction and stylistic features to assess when it may have been last worn. If we hypothesize that it was worn draped in back, we need to corroborate this by searching for primary sources that depict this draped back on a narrow skirt, as well as an elevated waist, short sleeves and individual breast delineation. A 1796 fashion plate with a woman (left)  identified as Fig. 118” in Nicholas Heideloff’s Gallery of Fashion fits the bill despite the fact that a round gown, rather than an open robe, is draped twice in back. Without the back drape, a much broader time span may be considered. Further research could search for surviving open robes with darted bandeaux or front panels, which are hard to identify in visual sources.

This exhibition aimed to demonstrate the use of dress artifacts in scholarly research. It discusses the strengths and limitations of cut and construction investigations to help understand changing dress practices in the late eighteenth century. It draws on the expertise of numerous individuals who research eighteenth-century garments and learn through the making and wearing process. Immersed in another time period, their quests may go beyond mere entertainment.

 

Have you made reproductions of historical garments? What insights have you gained from the process?

Share your thoughts by e-mailing anne.bissonnette@ualberta.ca and we may add your story to bring different perspectives on this subject.

 

 

 


[1] Anne Bissonnette, “Dessiné d'après nature: Renditions from Life in the Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1798‐9," Journal for EighteenthCentury Studies 38, no. 2 (2015): 226, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1754-0208.12205.

[2] Saundra Ros Altman, Past Patterns #038: A Partially Boned Transition Stay Drafted from the Original at the Connecticut Historical Society, circa 1793-1820 (Dayton, OH: Past Patterns, 2009), 1. Cited in Anne Bissonnette, “Dessiné d'après nature: Renditions from Life in the Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1798‐9," Journal for EighteenthCentury Studies 38, no. 2 (2015): 237, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1754-0208.12205.

 

Support for the exhibition was provided by a KIAS Dialogue Grant from the Kule Institute for Advanced Study and a CIP Artist Project Grant by the Edmonton Arts Council and the City of Edmonton.

 

 

 

 

 

This exhibition draws on research supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The following individuals have contributed to Dr. Bissonnette’s research thus far: Josée Chartrand, Meg Furler, Peggy Isley, Katelin Karbonik, Patricia Siferd, and Sarah Woodyard.