J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, February 09, 2013

Update #3: Mysteries of the Elizabeth Bull Wedding Gown

Last November I attended an event at the Bostonian Society about one of its prize artifacts, the Elizabeth Bull wedding dress, which was about to be sent off for study and conservation. I’m no expert in fashion, either eighteenth-century or twenty-first-century, but I know some folks who are, and I’m interested in how stories get passed down.

The Smithsonian Institution is sometimes called the nation’s attic, and the Bostonian Society could be considered Boston’s attic. But the Bostonian Society wasn’t founded until 1881, when citizens decided to restore the Old State House and turn it into a museum. That means the museum’s collections contain lots of historic things, but not so significant that they weren’t already owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society, American Antiquarian Society, Harvard University, Museum of Fine Arts, or other older institutions. It also means that the stories behind many of its colonial artifacts are based in family lore passed down for over a century and thus liable to evolution.

The Elizabeth Bull wedding dress is one of those treasures. As I understand the situation, its documentation was created in 1910 when descendants of Elizabeth (Bull) Price donated the garment to the society. They reported their understanding that:
  • Elizabeth Bull began to embroider the silk gown with flowers while she was a schoolgirl in 1731.
  • She wore the dress at her wedding to the Rev. Roger Price in 1735.
  • Her daughter wore it to George III’s coronation in 1760.
However, as the museum’s photograph of an anonymous model wearing the dress shows, the dress doesn’t have an eighteenth-century silhouette. The skirt was taken in above the knees, in some places by cutting and seaming through the original embroidery. The resulting shape is most appropriate for the 1820s or ’30s. Conservator Katherine Tarleton reported that these alterations were “really finely stitched,” not slapdash for a single occasion as she’s seen in other altered garments. Later the gown’s bodice was remade with nineteenth-century fabric, but this time less skillfully, and that section hasn’t held up well.

The Bull gown was on display in the Old State House for most of the first half of the twentieth century, according to newspaper reports. (The museum’s internal records don’t preserve such detail.) Such long display, perhaps with exposure to some sunlight or drips, has left the backs of the sleeves “shattered” and the skirt stained. These days, conservators told us, the professional rule of thumb is to display a costume for four months and then to keep it in storage for four years.

In addition to the pieces of the gown shown in the photo, there are some matching bits. One is an eighteenth-century underskirt that’s in better shape than the overskirt, not having been exposed to light or spills. It also has a wider circumference, suggesting the dimensions of the original gown. There are also pieces of an old bodice, perhaps the original top of the gown or perhaps a part that was never completed and attached.

Those bodice pieces are marked with drawings of flowers for someone to embroider. So did Elizabeth Bull wear this gown at her wedding even though it obviously wasn’t finished? Was there originally a plain bodice that’s been discarded? Or were the unsewn flowers drawn on later because someone wanted more embellishment, but no one ever finished embroidering them?

Elizabeth and Roger Price moved to England in the mid-1700s. Their daughter reportedly attended a coronation in this gown—still apparently unfinished. She and her brother moved back to Massachusetts after the Revolutionary War, when celebrating George III was no longer a popular activity. Might the family memory of the gown have then morphed from a coronation gown to the gown their ancestor wore at her Boston wedding? Did the daughter, who lived until 1826, have the gown altered, or was that a relative’s decision?

I doubt we’ll ever know the full story of this garment, but the conservation will preserve the mystery for another generation.


Anonymous said...

Being a seamstress and an embroiderer amongst a long line of family seamstresses and historic costume designers, it is not uncommon for the embroidery to be done on plain cloth prior to the dress actually cut and sewn or fully fitted. It is also not uncommon for the dress to be simultaneously designed as the embroidery is underway. Works in progress, so to speak, would explain the cuts into the embroidered areas if indeed they are original to the dress.

In addition, repeated patterns such as what appears on the dress, gets very monotonous over time. Like any project, sometimes the monotony brings it to an end, whether the person intended it in the beginning or not. Many of my family embroidered garments and household linens have changes in the pattern simply to break the monotony. In addition, while not apparent from a common eye, a close look at my grandmother’s works indicates where she just got tuckered out. Some of my mother’s historic theater costume designs were changed midstream to accommodate time constraints or fabric availability.

Just as importantly, 18th and early 19th century garments were re-altered again and again because textiles were reused over and over again. It would have been common for her to have worn the dress for the wedding and re-altered the dress for other occasions or for a change in body type even before she passed it down to her descendants. There may also have been various adornments originally on the dress that were reused on other garments.

So from my experience, study of garments and textile history, the garments current design, cuts and condition is consistent with the useage of the period. To determine the true era of the embroidered areas (presumably the areas of the original dress), one should be able to check the embroidery threads and dyes to see if they are consistent with the early 18th century.
Burnsville, MN

Mark B. said...

As the first commenter says, it was standard practice to alter dresses according to the style of the day. Unlike us, women of the past would own very few dresses, and would reuse them over their lifetimes as much as possible. So a dress that got a lot of use shouldn't be expected to be 'authentic' to its original time period.

J. L. Bell said...

There's no question this gown was altered, most likely twice. The skirt shows a silhouette fashionable about 1830, and the existing bodice uses fabric and styles from about 1890.

The underskirt and unused bodice pieces also offer good clues about the original shape of the gown and its embroidery. But whether that work dates to 1735 or 1760, and whether the gown was worn at an important occasion before it was complete, still appear to be mysteries.