A Look Inside an Antique Natural Form Gown

June 20, 2018

I finally did it! I finally purchased my first antique gown! I've been wanting to really dive into collecting extant gowns for a while, but the price of the ones that popped up on eBay and the like was always a bit outside my admittedly meager budget.It was during a trip to a local antique mall that I finally lucked out - they had a rack full of antique clothes! Most of the offerings were from ~1910 and later, but there, on a mannequin in the corner, was this lovely little gem.


They had it marked as a "civil war era gown", but it's clearly a later style, most likely from the late 1870s/early 1880s, when natural form was in full swing. Having looked at fashion plates and ads from the natural form era, I'd probably date this dress to between 1878 - 1881, leaning heavily toward 1880.  The long bodice like this one really started becoming fashionable around 1880, but it does show up a little bit before then, though not as frequently. Trained skirts also disappear from daywear right around 1880, while just the year before they were still everywhere.

The dress wasn't in the greatest shape - the silk under the arms was shredded, and the silk was splitting in a few places. The button placket at the front of the bodice was nearly torn off, too. But, the price was right and all the pieces were there, so I decided to give it a loving new home.

And what a lovely dress it is! The dress is made of a striped silk that's mounted onto a brown polished cotton lining. The embellishments at the bottom are of weighted silk which, miraculously, hadn't shattered at all. The dress was made with a combination of machine and hand sewing, and it looked like the dress had been altered several times over the course of its life. I have a sneaking suspicion that the dress was even a remake of an earlier gown, as the sleeve shape looks really late 1860s/early 1870s to me with that elbow flare.

 

The bodice is made of two fabrics - a plain black silk on the sleeves and center back, and a grey and black striped silk for the body and sleeve cuffs. The striped fabric is really lightweight and almost semi-sheer. 

 

The bodice is lined with a brown polished cotton, and there is a two-inch wide band of black silk at the hem for facing, which also helps to form the piping on the outside of the bodice.  The striped silk is used as a facing at the center front. There are two large darts on either side of the center front, and the seams look like they've been adjusted several times, probably for growth or weight gain/loss. There's still some hand-stitching on some of the seams where they've been taken in. There is no waist tape, and I can't see any evidence that there ever was.


Here you can see the facing and the piping a bit better. 

 

The sleeves have decorative cuffs on them. The buttonholes are false and made of black silk ribbon, with the buttons just sewn down on top of them. The outer ring of the buttons has worn away on almost all of them, except for the solid black one above. It's likely that all the buttons once looked like that one.


The stripes on the bodice run vertically, and meet at an angle at the side seam. There is a waist seam that runs from the side front to the side back, and the center front and center back have no waist seam.


The shoulder seams are set back from the top of the shoulder. The two center back panels of the bodice are in the black silk, while the rest of the bodice is in striped silk.

 

The outside of the skirt is striped black and grey silk, with two pleated ruffles and a wide band of trim at the hemline. 

 
The skirt is flatlined in the same brown polished cotton as the bodice. The trim on the outside of the skirt is sewn through all layers.


The trim at the bottom of the skirt is two stacked ruffles. The bottom ruffle has spaced pleats in groups of five, while the top ruffle is evenly pleated in tiny knife pleats. It's finished off at the top with a band of black silk.


The center front of the skirt is gathered slightly and tacked down by hand through all layers. There are three large upward-facing pleats on the side front panels.

 
The back of the skirt is only slightly longer than the front, likely because of the skirt supports that would have been worn with it originally. There is a little bit of drapery going on, but not a great deal. The back actually has two layers of striped silk, one for the base, and one for the drapery.


You can see on the inside how much fuller the back is than the front. Oddly, I haven't found any evidence of tapes or ties on the inside of the skirt.


The ruffles from the front continue around the back the back of the skirt. The wide ruffle is only on the underlayer, while the narrower ruffle is only on the upper layer.


Underneath the wide ruffle is a facing of black silk.


 The underlayer is made up of different sections of fabric.The center is of brown polished cotton.


The sides of the underlayer are of striped silk. Oddly, the upper layer is left loose on the top half of the skirt, right down to where the large pleats on the side panels are. This was done intentionally, as there is a band of black silk on the inside for a facing.


The black facing goes all the way to the bottom edge of the upper layer. At the side, the top panel of the skirt is pleated several times and stitched to the outside of the skirt, free of the seam.


The skirt opens at the center back. There is no placket, and it doesn't look like there ever was. There is a weird tuck a few inches from the waistband. It doesn't extend all the way across the back of the skirt, and is hidden by the bodice when worn, so this may be a quick and dirty alteration done in the past to adjust the length.


The lining at the back has a couple of strange features. First, there's a big tuck a few inches down. It's not at the same level as the outside tuck, but it does take up the same amount of length, which adds more evidence that this was done as an alteration.


There's a 4-6 inch band of cotton that's sewn into the skirt at the back waistline. I originally thought that this was also a length alteration, but when I looked closer, the band was cut and sewn on, not folded down. It's very tightly gathered, and then whip-stitched to the waistband. I think this was probably done to add some umph to the back of the skirt and give it a little volume.


More alterations are apparent at the waistline. There's a bit of the polished cotton and the striped silk folded down and sewn into the waistband.


And finally...pocket! I don't know what the white line of stitching is on the pocket bag, it doesn't seem to serve a function.

I'm so happy to have this dress in my collection. It has so much personality, and it was clearly loved by whoever owned it before.

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