Young Girl's Black Dress

Contributed by: Dorothy Nicol Historical Fashion Collection

Little Girl Wearing Dress Dress Front Side. Photograph by Sylvia Walsh Dress Front. Dress Front Side. Photograph by Sylvia Walsh Bodice Close Up. Dress Front Side. Photograph by Sylvia Walsh Bodice Detail Sleeve Detail Skirt Hemline Inside detail of Dress Button Detail Inside of Bodice Back Girl's Dress, 1845-1855. Powerhouse Museum, A10073 Stereoscopic photograph of children playing a piano. 1860-1890 Powerhouse Museum, P2655-48
  • Australian dress register ID:

    467
  • Owner:

    Dorothy Nicol Historical Fashion Collection
  • Owner registration number:

    1.CLD/1.2003
  • Date range:

    1855 - 1865
  • Place of origin:

    Belmont, Victoria, Australia
  • Gender:

    Female, Child
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Object information

Significance statement

Although very little provenance information regarding this garment has survived it is, nevertheless, a very well preserved example of children's clothing in mid-nineteenth century Australia. This little girl's dress is made from black silk taffeta and is dated to the period 1855-1865. Entirely hand sewn throughout, the dress is decorated with glass buttons, black velvet ribbons, black silk-rouleaux with jet bugle beads, as well as white cotton machine-made lace and blue silk-taffeta edging. 

What makes this garment even more interesting is that it is believed to have been made and worn in rural Victoria during the mid-nineteenth century. The dress was donated to Dorothy Nicol's Historical Fashion Collection by Jenny Barr and her sister Barbara Denness on behalf of their aunt, Janet Dawe. A black and white photograph of a little girl wearing the dress has survived and it is believed that the dress belonged to Janet Dawe's grandmother who came from a well to-do country family.

Its fine materials and complexity of sewing techniques indicate that the Dawe family must have enjoyed a relatively wealthy lifestyle in a fashionable rural society. Fashion during this period was very class conscious, and the rising middle class in wealthy colonies such as Victoria demonstrated their importance and prosperity through their ostentatious dress. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards well-to-do girls were dressed as miniature versions of their mothers, and as a result fabrics and embellishments that were just as fine and expensive were also used in their dresses. The girl who wore this short-sleeved dress would have been attired in the same style as her mother, except for the dress skirt which was shorter. 

This dress also demonstrates the utilitarian nature of clothing in colonial Australia even when attributed to the prosperous middle class. As this dress is made of black silk taffeta it may have originally been made for funeral or mourning wear. The blue silk binding and lace trims may have been added at a later date after the mourning period had ended for another occasion. Studying the inside of the bodice also reveals large seam allowances of 3cms which may have been made for growth and adaptation of the dress as the child grew. Both of these features of the dress would have allowed for maximum use of the garment.

Author: Sarah Bendall, 26.02.14.

Description

This little girl's dress is made from black silk taffeta and is dated to around 1855--1865. Entirely hand sewn throughout, the form fitting bodice is unboned and trimmed with decorative glass buttons, black velvet ribbons and black silk-rouleaux with jet bugle beads. The sleeves and neckline are trimmed with white cotton machine-made lace, and blue silk-taffeta edging trims the backwaist peplum which covers the back skirt opening. The bottom of the skirt is decorated with a pleated frill attachment made from the same black silk taffeta.The dress is lined with cotton calico and cotton canvas, and the skirt lining stiffened to give the dress its crinoline silhouette.

This dress reflects the utilitarian nature of clothing in colonial Australia - the black taffeta fabric of the dress may have meant that it was originally intended for mourning wear, with the white lace and blue trim added at a later date for another occassion. Studying the inside of the bodice also reveals large seam allowances of 3cms which may have been made for growth and adaptation of the dress as the child grew.

History and Provenance

The dress was donated to Dorothy Nicol's Historical Fashion Collection by Jenny Barr and her sister Barbara Denness on behalf of their aunt, Janet Dawe. The dress was found in Janet Dawe's family home in Belmont, Victoria. It was stored with a small woman's cape in a trunk.

It is believed that the dress belong to Janet Dawe's grandmother who came from a well to-do country family that had been active in fashionable society and lived a comfortable rural lifestyle.

A black and white photograph of a little girl wearing the dress has survived. The portrait was located among Janet Dawe's possessions and was held in a lockable, leather bound album covering the mid-1880s to 1900. 

Where did this information come from?

Sylvia Walsh, Masters Thesis,  'A Lasting Image Made of Cloth: The Dorothy Nicol Historic Fashion Collection'  Masters of Arts (Textile Design). Department of Fashion & Textiles RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) Brunswick, Melbourne, Australia 2007 

This garment has been exhibited

This garment was on display on a stand in a cabinet at the Masonic Hall in Lismore from mid-2003 until 2007.

  1. Place of origin:

    Belmont, Victoria, Australia

  2. Worn by:

    Possibly owned and worn by grandmother of Janet Dawe

Trimmings / Decoration

Bodice trims consist of two rows of ribbon, parallel to centre front that are hand stitched on one of their edges to the bodice. Ribbon is also hand-stitched in running stitches covering the seams between the skirt and the skirt frill.

Six black, glass, conical-shaped buttons are attached to centre front and held into position by a shank being forced through fabric and lining and knotted on the inside with narrow white cotton tape. These buttons are decorative only.

Decorative hand-cut edges finish the skirt hemline frill. A box pleated frill is edged at the botttom with scalloped cut hand-pinked edge.

Ribbon

Black velvet ribbon and black silk-rouleaux trim the front and back of the bodice in a V, Black velvet ribbons, silk and black silk-rouleaux with black bugle-beads are sewin to both edges, trim front and back of bodice in a V shape

Piping

Mid-blue plain weave silk-taffeta is hand-hemmed around edges of three piece backwaist peplum and around sleeve edges. 2mm Black silk taffeta piping is inserted in bodice waist-shirt seam and armhole seam between bodice and sleeve.

Lace

White cotton yarn, machine made lace, hand slip-stitched to neckline and sleeve edges under piped neckline, bound into seam inside edge

Fibre / Weave

The main fabric is a thick, stiff, plain weave silk taffeta that has been plain dyed black.

The bodice lining is cotton calico in a plain weave. It is un-dyed and natural-being in colour. The skirt lining is a cotton canvas in a plain weave.

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye

Manufacture

The dress is hand-sewn throughout. Due to the complexity of sewing techniques exhibited by the dress this must have been done by a dressmaker or a proficient home-sewer. 

Garment construction and inside garment features include raw edges and small, hand running stitch seams.

With limited provenance information available it is difficult to pin point the exact date of manufacture. However, from comparisons made to other extant children’s garments from this era it is likely that the dress was made sometime between 1855 - 1865.

Alterations

As this dress is black is may have originally been chosen for funeral or mourning wear. The blue binding and lace trims may have been added at a later date for another occassion.

  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other

Cut

  1. Bias
  2. Straight

Fastenings

The bodice does up at centre back with hook and eyes.

On the inside of the bodice there is a white cotton tape inserted as a neckline drawstring that is inside lace-edge internal seam-neatening. The tape ties at centreback inside neckline.

  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

The skirt lining is stiffened to tailoring finish. The lining is similar quality to fabric used to support the inside of tailored garments like collars and lapels. It is undyed and light-brown in colour.

Measurements

dress
Girth
Chest 550 mm
Waist 540 mm
Hem circumference 2240 mm
Vertical
Front neck to hem 630 mm
Front waist to hem 340 mm
Back waist to hem 350 mm
Outside leg 350 mm
Horizontal
Neck to sleeve head 40 mm
Cross back 250 mm
Underarm to underarm 220 mm
Convert to inches

Additional material

Articles, publications, diagrams and receipts descriptions

There is an interview on the ABC Ballarat website 'Gathering memories: Dorothy Nicol's historical fashion collection' (25 May, 2011).

http://www.abc.net.au/local/photos/2011/05/25/3226247.htm 

Other related objects

A similar silk dress resides in the Powerhouse Museum collection and dates from around 1850-1855. This dress is provenanced to Australia and is believed to have been remade from an earlier woman's dress. 

It shares many stylistic features with the Dawe’s dress – a large skirt designed to fit over a crinoline, wide neckline, short-puffed sleeves and a ‘V’ shaped detail on the bodice.

www.from.ph/168462

Also in the Powerhouse Museum collection is a stereoscopic photograph of children playing a piano (1860-90), wearing similar dress.

  http://from.ph/322322 

Link to collection online

Condition

State

  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor

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