I did a bunch of research for this post about two and a half weeks ago before I left to spend four months in Spain, so I'm just going to go for this and really hope that I haven't forgotten anything. I'll double check everything later, but I spent a ton of time and effort on this so I'm pretty sure I got everything down.
Also, my internet keeps cutting out and it's driving me up the wall. My hostess here in Spain says that it's a huge problem here just as it is in the United States that internet companies don't like to provide good service. As she says, "es una locura."
About a month before leaving home I went to a small vintage jewelry store called Mrs. Beadsley: vintage Jewelry, Apparel, and Accessories (click that title to go to her webpage). It's a single-woman operation and she's been in the business for many years and knows her stuff pretty well.
What interested me most was this black silk Victorian dress she bought from a local estate sale for (according to her) $70.00. Apparently it had been (the horror) stored flat in a garage for some time.
(note that the skirt and bodice are both hanging from the same level because I don't have any fancy means of displaying stuff, like a mannequin or something)
Based on the style, I'd date this dress to the early 1890s. The sleeves aren't full enough for the mid-to-late-1890s, but it's definitely past the bustle-era of the 1880s and the cut of the bodice is classic 1890s.
The lightweight silk of the entire garment is in very delicate condition and I've already managed to snap a couple stitches even with the most delicate of handling. As I say, this garment was stored in a garage, flat, based on the presence of deep creases that suggest weight was placed on top of the garment as well.
Front closure is achieved with hooks and eyes. All are present except for one, though I cannot remember exactly its location. I think it was one of the ones near to the waist. It's not a center front closure, but rather an overlap-closure on the left side. The right panel was more or less cut on the fold so it would overlap over the left and the closure would be hidden under a black silk overlay.
A large part of the bodice is made out of this lovely habbotai-weight silk dyed using some sort of resist method (I think). There are slight imperfections in the dyeing process that suggest it was dyed by hand, but I want to look at it a little more and do more research before I declare that absolutely to be the case. In any case, it is beautiful. Places where the fabric has been protected from the light, such as inside the cuff, suggest that the fabric was originally a brighter colour as well, not the faded beige evident in the photos. Maybe it was displayed at some point?
Overlayed on the patterned fabric is a similar weight black silk that opens up to reveal the patterning underneath.
The entire bodice is delicately tacked down to an interlining of black cotton in order to achieve intricate draping effects in the bodice and in the sleeve areas. I still can't quite figure out how all this was done, as layers of tacking were done one on top of the other. This is especially evident in the sleeves. Unfortunately, as you can see from the second photo above, something is missing to facilitate holding the black overlay over the left breast to conceal the front closure. I don't know what exactly is missing, because there was no obvious evidence left behind.
The skirt is made from a different material from the dress, but there is no doubt that they were a pair. There are eyes, stitched in the same way as those on the bodice, which correspond exactly with hooks on the bodice. Presumably they were meant to keep the bodice just so as the wearer moved around.
Fabric is a nice, swishy black taffeta, unfortunately also quite brittle with age. Debra ("Mrs Beadsley") told me that she caught the hem of the skirt on something when she was transporting it to her store and it ripped a little. I think this was just waiting to happen, as the fabric right along the waistline is super delicate. The rest seems pretty strong still. I do not know exactly why the difference, but it presented quite a challenge when I tried to put the skirt on a hanger for storage. The white cloth at the top of the first two photos is muslin that I originally used to fit a pair of pants. It's there to keep the hanger from abrading the skirt, and, ideally, the muslin will take some of the stress and protect the skirt.
Since the skirt is longer in the back that in the front, which also corresponds with 1890s styles, it probably would have been worn over a good-sized petticoat with a lot of volume towards the back. It was the beginning of a trend towards ever-growing petticoats that reached a peak around the turn of the century. The overall idea was to achieve a slim front and full, bell-shaped back, often with a "demi-train" that just barely brushed the ground.
Whoever wore this dress was very small in the torso but taller than I am, or at least longer in the leg. From measurements I took, I know the skirt would have had to sit well above my own natural waist in order to avoid dragging on the ground, or perhaps the wearer would have worn very high heels. I am about five-foot-four. The bust and waist are also smaller than my corseted measurements. I estimated the bodice to have a bust of about thirty inches. Corseted, mine is 32.
There's a great deal of wear on the dress, not obviously from wearing, but definitely from storing.
You can see the brownish colour of the interlining showing through in the above photo. There's also a little wear on the parts of the sleeves where it was creased during storage (creasing is why the sleeve lies so flat even when the bodice is on a hanger).
There are also tears, wear marks, a couple smudges, and a lot of snapped stitches. Obvious wear from a person actually wearing the garment, though, is nonexistent. This may have been someone's best dress, or there may be some other explanation for why the original owner didn't wear it very much.
This dress was a lucky find. I've never gotten to look directly at a dress this old before, and it's from one of my favourite stylistic eras. I love the intricately patterned bodices and sweeping skirts of the 1890s.
My ultimate goal is to replicated this garment in new materials and in my size, but it is definitely going to depend on how much time and money I have. I still don't even know exactly how the garment is put together.