Friday, June 15, 2012

Research: Short sleeved dresses

Having spent one summer and gearing up for a second working in Columbia in a long sleeved dress, I find it very difficult to believe that women of the 1850s (and the rest of the 19th century) did not have a short sleeved summertime option for dresses.  I know the popular thought around me says that "oh no, they wore sleeves all the time, and bonnets, and doilies on their heads at all times."  I don't believe it, but I digress.

In the interest of saving my dresses from sweat stains (gasp!) and myself from having a heat stroke while I restock wine, beer, and move deliveries around, I have begun a little research project.  I hypothesize that there were short sleeved dresses for women--and not just young ones or ball gowns.  I'm talking about daytime attire.

I have not spent too much time researching (the wedding and life ate up a bunch of my time you know), but I did manage to find a large collection of dresses at the Met that are American made, cotton, from the mid 19th century, not classified as ball gowns, and SHORT SLEEVED.

My criteria to be on this research list:
1. Must be from between 1835-1855.
2. Must not be a dress for evening of dinner or a ball gown
3. Must be for an adult woman
4. Must be American
5. Must be cotton
(note all links to the Met are to the dress's page)
Exhibit 1: Late 1840s Mourning Dress from The Metropolitan Museum of  Art
 This dress, like the others could have had detachable sleeves to make it long sleeved, but they have no survived.  For the sake of argument, I'm going to assume they were not worn with this dress.  The first thing I noticed is that it's a mourning dress, to be worn at a time of great sadness.  If exposing the skin of the arms was not done in polite society, why would it have been done then?  Sure, you wouldn't be out socializing if you're in mourning, but I would assume out of respect you wouldn't have worn clothing that was not generally considered appropriate.  Plus, the neckline is very conservative, there is not much trim on the dress.  It's a simple black and white cotton dress with pleating.

Exhibit 2: c. 1847 Dress from The Metropolitan Museum of Art
 This dress appears to be a day dress to me.  The neckline is not low enough to be an evening or ball gown.  There is no embellishment.  It's a simple cotton dress.  Seems perfectly appropriate to wear in hot weather to me.

Exhibit 3: 1849 Wedding Dress from The Metropolitan Museum of Art
 While this is not a "day dress," but for a fancy occasion, I included it for a reason.  It's simple.  The only fancy decoration is the silk on it.  The dress itself is cotton and modest.  It's got the same almost boat-neck neckline as the other day dresses, the same pleating, and the same short sleeves.  Only difference is the specific event it was made for and the modest silk trim.

Exhibit 4: 1841-1844 Dress from The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This is the perfect example of summer.  It's a simple white cotton dress with short sleeves.  No frills, bells, or whistles.  Its screams day wear to me.

From what I can tell, it appears short sleeves are okay to wear.  Sure it's possible these dresses were worn with detachable sleeves, but it's also entirely possible they were not.  If a woman owned them (or something similar) when they were new and brought them across the country sometime around 1850, they would be "old clothes."  These wouldn't necessarily be the dresses you cherished and wore to fancy events.  These would be what you wore around your home or at work, when you didn't need to worry about damaging them.  They are the 19th century equivalent of those faded, torn, and worn out jeans that you wear on weekends or when you want to be comfortable.  Or that thread bare T-shirt that you wear to clean your house.  You don't wear those to make an impression on people, you wear them because they are comfortable.  I doubt very much that a woman living in Columbia, CA c. 1850 that had to work to support herself or even a family would have thought twice about wearing comfortable old dresses without all the fine accessories they might once have had.

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