Thursday, July 31, 2014

Inside the Australian Dress Register: Young Girl's Black Dress, c. 1860

Young Girl's Black Dress, c. 1855-65. Dorothy Nicol Historical Fashion Collection, Belmont Victoria

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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

Little girl wearing the dress

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.

For more detailed information about the manufacture of this garment and to explore others like it please visit the Australian Dress Register by clicking on the logo below.

*The Australian Dress Register is a collaborative, online project about dress with Australian provenance pre-1975. This includes men's, women's and children's clothing ranging from the special occasion to the everyday. Museums and private collectors are encouraged to research their garments and share the stories and photographs while the information is still available and within living memory. The project is facilitated by the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia. All contents are copyright of the Powerhouse Museum and Contributors. 

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