Tuesday, June 19, 2012

More 19th century dress research

I have had several new thoughts regarding my new research projects.  I am by no means an expert on 19th century clothing, I'm learning as I go.  I do, however, feel it is important to share this quote before I start writing again:
The V&A's Victorian dress collection represents the fashions worn by the wealthy in the 19th century, and reflects their lives and aspirations. ...The degree of workmanship involved in making these clothes meant that they were expensive to make -they were high fashion comparable to today's haute couture. ... The middle classes generally would not wear such high value items such as these. However, the style of these clothes would have spread further than the small social group for whom they were made, much the same as adapted catwalk fashions can be found in high street retailers today. The middle classes could afford to have high fashion copied by local dressmakers and tailors, or made their own new clothes. ... The poor would rely on the huge second-hand clothes trade prevalent during the period, spending hours altering old clothes for themselves and their families to make them fit or to make them more fashionable. Clothes could be dyed and the good parts of a garment made into children's clothes or accessories, and areas of wear could be patched. There was even a market for ragged clothes that had been through several owners - these were still worn by the destitute. -- "Victorian dress at the V&A" from The Victoria and Albert Museum
There really was no good place to crop that quote off really since it is so very relevant, so sorry for the length.  While it is in reference to the items in the V&A's collection of 19th century clothing and more specifically to England, the sentiment of the quote is still applicable to the United States and specifically to California.  US fashions were influenced by Europe.  The select few that could afford to have the "haute couture" versions of dresses in fashion plates were few and far between.  Those of a middle class background could and did have similar versions of these dresses made.  Those that were poor were left to inherit the secondhand, slightly out of date fashions.

As women (and men too) moved across the US, further away from centralized institutions that controlled social structure, the rules became more relaxed.  The smaller number of women in California presented them with the opportunity to become financially successful themselves.  Several women were able to make a rather impressive living doing the same things women did everyday across the country.  It is likely that the average working woman's wardrobe did consist of secondhand clothes and out of date fashions, but it is just as likely that the new-found financial success also provided a means to either make or have made clothing that was more in line with the popular East coast versions.
Peeling Onions, ca. 1852. Lilly Martin Spencer.
I think this is perhaps more what should be the common attire in Columbia.  It's an actual working dress, not a prairie dress.  Women didn't wear their best clothes to work in.  Not to mention the fact that the sleeves are either short or pushed up to be short.  Seems infinitely more practical to me.
Image found on Pinterest, credited as from finedags.com
I thought this was super interesting.  I've been told (again no concrete proof on my part) that women did not wear much jewelery if they were unmarried.  This woman is wearing quite a bit, leading me to believe she is married and has a pretty decent financial situation.  I thought it was also interesting that this is a short sleeved, sheer dress not unlike these two below.
from The Met

from The Met
Granted they are from different time periods, the concept is the same.  A summer dress with short sleeves for a WOMAN, not a girl or teenager.

Now apply that quote from the V&A to this situation.  The high class version that mimics the fashion plate could be seen as the period dag of the mid-late 1850s woman with jewelery.  The surviving example available in museums are the two dresses in a late 1840s style.  These dresses probably belonged to women of at least a middle class background.  It still seems probably to me that a dress such as this could have been worn by a working class woman, perhaps not in such fine, easy to soil fabric though.

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