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Queens College Fashion Collection: 1830s White Satin Evening Dress

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For the Spring 2015 semester, I took a course with the Family, Nutrition, and Exercise Sciences Department called Fashion Archiving.  Queens College, CUNY, has an immense historic fashion collection, and in this new course, students learn how to research and handle old materials.  After being assigned an 1830s White Satin Evening Dress, I was required to pinpoint the exact period of the dress, place it in its historical and cultural moment, and finally give a small presentation to a live audience.  I did research both at home and at the FIT Special Collections Library, looking through 19th century publications and fashion plates.  Enjoy!

Part One: Identification

Garments 95.88.13 A & B are a white satin bodice and skirt dating from the early 1830s. Donated by White Satin Dress 1830s, Queens College Collection, 95.88.13a, bBruce Carr in 1995, along with several other pieces in the Queens College collection, no other vital information can be gathered by the articles’ provenance at this time. The silhouette of this garment, however, aids in dating it to around the early 1830s (Fig. 1).

Pleating can be seen on the bodice’s bust as well as at the joining of the sleeves to the shoulder. The interior is lined with a lightweight lining, most likely of a cotton material. This addition would have been for the protection of the silk fabric from sweat and oils. The sleeves of the bodice are a type of gigot sleeve, beginning slightly off the shoulder and puffing out to a large volume, ending somewhere slightly above the elbow.

La Belle Assemblée, April 1, 1825, 166.The dressing of the bodice has proven to be of some difficulty, as no stitch mark is visible for where the front of the garment would have closed. It is possible that there was at some point an insert, as many examples from the time seem to follow this trend (Fig. 2).

The skirt of this garment rests on the wearer’s waist, not quite on the hips, but lower than an empire waistline. Many gathers create a voluminous bell shaped silhouette. The inside is lined with the same lightweight material as the bodice, but the lining begins about six inches below the waistline, attached with what seems to be an invisible or blind stitch.

To properly date this item, the waistline, sleeves, and skirt are the most important aspects to lookLa Belle Assemblée, January 1, 1825, 28. at. Through research at FIT Special Collections looking through La Mode, La Belle Assemblée, and The World of Fashion and Continental Feuilletons, an aesthetic timeline can be assembled. The lowering from empire style begins La Mode, April 6, 1833, Plate 294around the year 1828, though it is interesting to note that waistlines hitting the hips can already be found at this time (Fig. 3). Already by 1833, the waistline dips lower than what is featured on this garment, touching the hips and forming a V-shaped waist, resembling the resurgence of a Renaissance and Baroque style (Fig. 4). Sleeves also begin to widen around 1828 (Fig. 5), and start to deflate by 1837 (Fig. 6).1 The skirt on this garment is heavily gathered and utilizes a lot of fabric,La Belle Assemblée, January 1828, 28. creating a very wide silhouette. Again, 1828 seems to be a turning point in this history of fashion, as skirts can be seen widening at this time (Fig. 7). With this information in mind, it seems quite certain that the garment in the Queens College collection can date no earlier than 1828 and no later than 1837, but perhaps even earlier than that.

La Belle Assemblée, March 1, 1828, 121This 1830s dress is not couture. Other than the fact that no La Mode, March 30, 1839, 405.designer has been attributed to its creation, there is a lack of luxurious fabrics, there is no evidence of buttonholes or snaps, fabric covered or otherwise, and the seam allowances seem generic in width. More likely than not, this dress was made by a dressmaker, as “it is strongly recommended to all those who can afford it, to have their best dresses invariably made by a mantua-maker.”2 The hand sewing visibly used for the skirt’s gatherings and the bodice’s pleats is uneven, where as the sewing done for the lining can almost be mistaken for machine sewing – though upon closer look, a slightly jagged line shows that this was hand sewn as well.

Whether the garment was merely an evening dress or a wedding dress can be debated. The severalWedding Dress 1835, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 17.42.1 examples found of contemporary wedding dress mostly feature exquisite embroidery Wedding Dress 1835, Metropolitan Museum of Art, C.I.51.4.1(Fig. 8) and ornamentation (Fig. 9). Without any information on the wearer, it is can also be put into question whether it was a wedding dress, as Jane Tozer and Sarah Levitt state that “wedding dresses are one of the rare types of garments for which the name of the wearer and the date of her marriage are often recorded.”3 Of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection of 1830s dresses, the Queens College piece most closely resembles items labeled as “dress” rather than “wedding dress.”(Fig. 10)

Dress 1830s, Metropolitan Museu of Art, C.I.46.82.20a, b


Being a Romantic Period dress, this garment required several underpinnings. The large sleeves Tozer and Levitt, Fabric of Society, 68.would have needed to be supported by either a wire frame or a feather down support. The wide skirt would have been expanded through the wearing of petticoats and a horsehair crinoline. Fabric of Society provides several images of the underpinnings of this period (Fig. 11). With the lowering of the waist after the empire style, corsets were used to create a narrow waist for an exaggerated silhouette. The wearer of this garment would have also been wearing a tight-laced corset.

La Mode, April 14, 1832, Plate 222.Though no period accessories accompany the garment in the Queens College collection, it is most likely that the wearer would have been ornamenting herself with the style of the time. Large hats became popular, as the Romantic Age boasted exaggerated forms. Hair also was given a lot of attention (Fig. 12). False hair and wires were added to create height and volume, and accessories such as jewels and flowers added extra extravagance.4

[1] James Laver, Costume and Fashion A Concise History, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1969), 168.

[2] The Workwoman’s Guide, 1838, quoted in Jane Tozer and Sarah Levitt, Fabric of Society A Century of People and their Clothes 1770-1870, (Carno: Laura Ashley Limited, 1983), 82.

[3] Tozer and Levitt, Fabric of Society, 92.

[4] Laver, Costume, 164-165.


Part Two: Cultural Analysis and Interpretation

The Queens College Historic Fashion Collection’s white satin dress, dating back from the early 1830s, donated by Bruce Carr, and sporting a bell-shaped silhouette perfectly fits into the cultural history of its time period. (Fig. 1)

As in all historical epochs, gender roles and sex play a large part in identifying the ideal individual. The decade of the 1830s was a part of a transitional period in which the notion of the perfect woman was shifting and becoming cemented. Instructional and etiquette manuals were being published for a female audience, educating them in how to properly act and fit into their appropriate roles. These publications were also being reproduced in the backs of regional newspapers, spreading their proliferation and influence.1 In these works, women were instructed “to be ignorant of all that the world calls pleasure,” and to be happy and content of said ignorance. Furthermore, and most importantly, “her glory is to live in the duties of a wife and mother.”2 Perhaps one can look at the 1830s as the beginning of the Cult of Domesticity, or the pushing of woman into the private sphere of the home: “Let home be now your empire, your world!”3 Woman was seen, contradictorily, as both inferior and superior to man. She is described as a “mere dependent and ornament to man,” avoiding any behavior that might displease her husband (Fig. 13The Wife by Asher Brown Durand, 1831), while at the same time, the “[role of angel]… and the [purveyor] of religious salvation.”4 Because of her more innate connection to religion and spirituality, it was her position to raise children in a virtuous household.

Philosophers, as well, were writing about the nature of the female sex, bringing rational and scientific legitimacy to the way society was treating its women. The two examples mentioned in this essay bookend the period of the 1830s. First is Immanuel Kant, a philosopher living from 1724 to 1804, emerging from the periods of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. In his essay Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, he labels women as the “fair sex,” while labeling man as the “noble sex.” Simply in his characterization of man and woman, he creates a hierarchy of the sexes. Woman should not be educated in the same topics as men, for they “might have a beard to boot.”5 By masculinizing an educated woman, and removing any attractiveness that she may have had, he dissuades any female reader, though by his description, women should not be reading philosophy, from pursuing any such sort of education. Instead, “the subject of the great science of woman is… a husband.”6 A century later, Friedrich Nietzsche writes about the same topic. Instead of using the term “fair sex,” he associates women as “the weaker sex.” Nietzsche condemns woman for the progress she has made within the early 19th century, a topic that will be related later on in this essay. The strides she has accomplished have caused woman to “[unlearn] to fear man… [And] the woman who ‘unlearns to fear’ sacrifices her most womanly instincts.”7 He sees this movement towards more independence, a loss of the selfless quality of woman in favor of a “selfish” attitude for personal development, as a deterioration of woman as woman.

The History of Amelia Gale: an Example of Self-Denying Zeal in the Cause of Missions Philadelphia, American Baptist Publication Society, 1852What does Nietzsche refer to when he says, “[woman] thus appropriates new rights, aspires to be ‘master,’ and inscribes ‘progress’ of woman on her flags and banners”?8 In the period of the 1830s, women are seen to be stepping outside of the domestic sphere in particular and restricted instances. In response to the Second Great Awakening there was a significant increase in membership to the Methodist Church, both in England and in the United States of America. In Lisa Shaver’s Stepping Outside the “Ladies’ Department,” she documents instances when women were written about outside of their domestic duties in a religious context (Fig. 14). To assume that Nietzsche is speaking about woman marching for suffrage and demanding rights is too far ahead in history. Women still were very restricted in the “rights” they were given during the 1830s, but through the newspaper articles cited by Shaver, religion and charity gave women a small sense of freedom, which may have been seen as excessive for philosophers such as Nietzsche.

The intellectual thinker may have been looking at other prominent females of the time when speaking about this “woman problem.” Charlotte Bronte, a contemporary author living from 1816 to 1855, can be seen as a problematic figure in the movement towards the Cult of Domesticity. Writing novels such as Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, and The Professor, Bronte places strong female protagonists in roles of independence. The character of Jane Eyre, though ultimately marrying Mr. Rochester, goes through the entire novel as a governess. She is educated and knowledgeable, perhaps more so than the average woman, and is not tied down to a husband and children. It may also be interesting to note that throughout the novel, attention is often paid to the plain, mundane clothes worn by Jane – can this rejection of fashion also be seen as a rejection of traditional female roles? Charlotte Bronte did not just “talk the talk” of female empowerment and independence, but she also “walked the walk.” Sangeeta Dutta recalls a correspondence between the author and the famous poet, Robert Southey. Southey warns Bronte that she should not pursue writing, as “literature is not the business of a woman’s life.” In response, Charlotte says, “Sometimes when I am teaching or sewing I would rather be reading or writing.”9 She did not fit into the restrictions of the proper female role of society, and she would not let the barriers of domesticity prevent her from following her passion. Charlotte Bronte never married, another example that shows her defiance of the traditional place of women.

The shift in women’s roles and place in society are only part of a larger revolution in culture. AfterLa Mode, April 6, 1833, Plate 294. the fall of Napoleon in 1814, aesthetics in art, literature, and thought changed dramatically. The Neo-Classical admiration for the rationality and simplicity of Greece and Rome during the 18th century gave way to the irrational, sublime sensibility of 19th century Romanticism. In this period, “individualism, imagination, and emotion [was the] guiding principle.”10 The changes in fashion perfectly reflect this change in intellectual and creative attitude. The Empire style of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was simple, rational, and celebrated Greco-Roman ideals. As the 19th century progressed, dress became more extravagant, to the point of ridiculousness (at least in today’s frame of reference). Sleeves engorged from mere “Juliette” to gigot and leg-o-mutton (Fig. 15). By the end of the 1820s, skirts were being hemmed with fanciful borders of flowers and fur, and by the 1830s, began to puff out from the waste, creating the bell-shaped silhouette supported by layersLa Belle Assemblée, January 1828, 28. and layers of petticoats and horsehair crinoline (Fig. 16, Fig. 15). The amount of embellishment that could be added to these garments to make them truly unique celebrated individualism.

The dress of the Romantic era, and that of the 1830s, reflects the role of woman at the time. Kant states that women “prefer the beautiful to the useful.”11 Many observations can be taken from this short, succinct statement, but the most important is that women’s dress was indeed more “beautiful” than useful. With the heavy petticoats and tight corsets, it is impossible to imagine a woman doing anything but remaining safely in the confines of her father’s or husband’s home. The shoulders of dresses oftentimes were dropped, restricting strong movement in the arms. An ideal woman would never have participated in any sort of manual labor. Not only does the aesthetic and construction of women’s dress, then, conform to the ideas of philosophers on the nature of woman, but the excess and outpouring of fabric on their garments also parallel the idea of the outpouring and excess of emotion in Romantic attitudes.

The historical and cultural context is all very important, but how does it enhance an understanding of the white satin dress in the Queens College collection? It is firstly important to decipher who may have worn a dress such as this. Other than the fact that no designer has been attributed to its creation, there is a lack of luxurious fabrics, there is no evidence of buttonholes or snaps, fabric covered or otherwise, and the seam allowances seem generic in width. More likely than not, this dress was made by a dressmaker, as “it is strongly recommended to all those who can afford it, to have their best dresses invariably made by a mantua-maker.”12 The hand sewing visibly used for the skirt’s gatherings and the bodice’s pleats is uneven, where as the sewing done for the lining can almost be mistaken for machine sewing – though upon closer look, a slightly jagged line shows that this was hand sewn as well. There is evidence of altering present, often times a signifier of a less wealthy individual, as this “[remaking] could extend [its] life as long as possible.”13 With all of this information gathered from the dress, more likely than not, the woman who would have worn it was probably among the ranks of the new middle class. Because of the time period and the expansion of the Methodist Church, the garment can possibly have belonged to a woman of Methodist beliefs. The dropped shoulders and full skirt reflect the ideas mentioned above regarding women’s behavior.

New Look by Dior - Photograph by John French 1947The silhouette employed in the 1830s and throughout the Romantic and Victorian periods of dress emphasize a feminine and delicate quality to the female form. This look reinforced Nietzsche and other’s idea of woman as the “weaker sex.” Looking forward about a century into the future, the bell-shaped silhouette of this white satin dress can be seen to reappear in Christian Dior’s 1947 “New Look” (Fig. 17). The cinched in waist and voluminous skirt reintroduced a strong sense of femininity into women’s fashion after a period of war and chaos. It also ran parallel to the trend of the nuclear family, perhaps a 20th century version of the Cult of Domesticity.

[1] Lisa Shaver, “Stepping Outside the ‘Ladies’ Department’: Women’s Expanding Rhetorical Boundaries,” College English 71, no. 1 (2008): 48-69.

[2] Shaver, “Ladies Department,” 54.

[3] Shaver, “Ladies Department,” 56.

[4] Shaver, “Ladies Department,” 56.

[5] Immanuel Kant, “Of the Difference of the Sublime and of the Beautiful in the Counterrelation of Both Sexes,” in Woman in Western Thought, ed. Martha Lee Osborne, (New York: Random House, 1979), 155.

[6] Kant, “Of the Difference,” 156.

[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil,” in Woman in Western Thought, ed. Martha Lee Osborne (New York: Random House, 1979), 233.

[8] Nietzsche, “Beyond Good,” 233.

[9] Sangeeta Dutta, “Charlotte Bronte and the Woman Question,” Economic and Political Weekly 26, no. 40 (1991): 2311.

[10] Lilian R. Furst, “Romanticism in Historical Perspective,” Comparative Literature Studies 4, no. 2 (1968): 116.

[11] Kant, “Of the Difference,” 155.

[12] The Workwoman’s Guide, 1838, quoted in Jane Tozer and Sarah Levitt, Fabric of Society A Century of People and their Clothes 1770-1870, (Carno: Laura Ashley Limited, 1983), 82.

[13] Edwina Ehrman, The Wedding Dress 300 Years of Bridal Fashions, (London: V&A Publishing, 2011), 60-61.



Dutta, Sangeeta. “Charlotte Bronte and the Woman Question.” Economic and Political Weekly 26. No. 40. 1991.


Ehrman, Edwina. The Wedding Dress 300 Years of Bridal Fashions. London: V&A Publishing. 2011.


Furst, Lilian R. “Romanticism in Historical Perspective.” Comparative Literature Studies 4. No. 2. 1968.


La Belle Assemblée, 1825, Volume 1.


La Belle Assemblée, 1828, Volume 7.


La Mode, 1831, Volume 8.


La Mode, 1832, Volume 11.


La Mode, 1832-1833, Volume 12.


La Mode, April-July 1833.


La Mode, April-July 1834.


La Mode, October-January 1835-1836.


La Mode, January-June 1839.


Laver, James. Costume and Fashion A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson, 1969.


Osborne, Martha Lee. Woman in Western Thought. New York: Random House. 1979.


Shaver, Lisa. “Stepping Outside the ‘Ladies’ Department’: Women’s Expanding Rhetorical Boundaries.” College English 71. No. 1. 2008.


The History of Amelia Gale: an Example of Self-Denying Zeal in the Cause of Missions. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society. 1852.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The World of Fashion and Continental Feuilletons, Volume 2.


Tozer, Jane, and Sarah Levitt. Fabric of Society A Century of People and their Clothes 1770-1870. Carno: Laura Ashley Limited, 1983.

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