I spend a lot of time looking at extant garments. I look at them on museum websites (the Met’s Costume Institute is a great one, as is the Museum at FIT and the Kyoto Costume Institute’s Digital Archives). I look at them on auction websites (Augusta Auction, anyone?). I look at them on Pinterest (like on my board for this project). Extant 19th century garments tell us a lot of useful, functional details that fashion plates and paintings cannot. They tell us about construction, material, and how a garment hangs. They tell us about social class, about availability of items and fashion trends, about communication between places. They tell us what people actually wore.
But what extant garments don’t tell us, 95 times out of 100, is what average, middle-class people were wearing (never mind working class).
You’ve all been through this weird permutation of people’s bodies in the past. You’ve gone to a museum, and looked at dresses with waists small enough to give Scarlett O’Hara’s 17 inches a run for their money. The docent usually says that “people were smaller back then.” This is an accepted “fact.” Why else would all the garments we have be so tiny?
Because they weren’t passed down. They weren’t remade into something later, once they were out of fashion. They were put away because no-one else could wear them. A size 0 skirt is much less likely to become a hand-me-down than a size closer to average, even today.
In his book, In Small Things Remembered, historical archeologist James Deetz cautions us from drawing too much direct meaning from museum groupings, or extant, well-preserved historical items. He says on page 8 that “for a variety of reasons, surviving artefacts cannot be taken as necessarily representative objects of their period. If we were to rely on museum collections, we might get an impression of a much richer level of material wealth than truly was the case. This is because must museums save the unusual and the valuable object, and individuals now and in the past consign commonplace objects to the dump.”
So not only are we looking at smaller items that could be preserved (Deetz throws the “people were smaller then” out the window on the same page), extant garments are of a higher value than others that were not preserved. Just as today, people of middling or lower classes wore and rewore their garments until they could no longer repair them, or they were so far out of fashion as to be ridiculous (for the middle classes). Upper class people had the means to make a dress and preserve it. Some gowns, usually of significance, were save — wedding dresses in particular had a sentimental value that would ensure they were tucked away, if the family could afford it. But many a middle-class bride wore and re-wore her wedding dress for best long after the wedding. (It is for this reason, Carol Wallace argues in her book, All Dressed In White: The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding, that middle-class brides often chose a colour other than white in which to marry — wearing white would immediately scream “new bride” to dinner guests post -1840 and Queen Victoria’s popularisation of the colour for weddings.)
This leaves us with the problem of extant garments. They remain valuable for construction details, and as a visual for what the wealthier classes were wearing. In this way, they’re as illustrative as photographs of celebrities in People — we know women were wearing these dresses, wealthy women who were frequently visible as consumers of fashion. The gowns are likely to be on-trend for when they were made, especially in large, cosmopolitan cities like New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and others. And they do allow us to see what a woman actually wore rather than the idealised image of a fashion plate. But as an end-all be-all reference, especially when it comes to middle-class lifestyles, they end there.
For my purposes, as I consider a mourning gown worn by a middle-class person, the gowns preserved at the Met and at FIT are an ideal, a piece of aspirational hope. How a middle-class lady would have wanted a fine silk ballgown made in Paris. But her dresses would have been simpler, with less elaborate trim, with less expensive materials. A mourning gown, even moreso — what recent widow wants to seem overly vain? This at once proves a frustration and a relief. On the one hand, I must rely on cartes de visite and other images of middle-class women instead of the beautiful period garments I’ve always admired in museums (and who doesn’t want to imagine themselves as a gorgeous, wealthy girl with hundreds of fine dresses to choose from?). On the other, it lowers the expectations of what I must do with the garment to be appropriate (which probably means no beading, a relief for my eyes and my needle). And I think it points to the frustration of all people of middling means. The aspiration for more is always there. The desire for more and more beautiful dresses, finer jewellery, grander things is always there. But, in a very real sense, the 19th century was very concerned with being appropriate for one’s station, and not overreaching for things. Being frugal and simple was upheld as a virtue, even if it wasn’t always acheived. And that’s something important for me to remember as I start to price out materials and supplies. Frugal housewives were the expectation, idealised in their own way, even if the beautiful belles in their gowns were the much sighed-after image.