Today’s 1864 dress is here for a few reasons. First, it is a frothy creation that doesn’t overdo it or make me think of wedding-cake toppers or Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz.
Secondly, and most importantly, it’s changed my understanding of Artistic/Reform dress and the fashions of Pre-Raphaelite women in the 1860s or even 1850’s.
I’ve never seen a Civil War era dress like this one. The sleeves and bodice “classic Artistic/Reform Dress” but the date threw me, as did the belted waist, and the skirt is too voluminous for the usual late Victorian/Early Edwardian time frame. “The dress is of bleached linen tarlatan, with ruched sleeves and bodice, likely a day dress made for walking in the summer months. The full skirt would have certainly been worn with a crinoline.”
Even though it looks made of something soft and floaty, tarlatan is a gauze of a very open plain weave and stiffened with glaze, tarlatan has a sheer, wiry look and feel. It is white or dyed a solid color (Vintage Fashion Guild). No wonder it keeps its shape!
But is this really an accurate dating? In a word, yes. This is a painting done in 1864 by James McNeill Whistler – Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl.
The dress is made of muslin, “a sheer plain-weave cotton of soft texture and a fabric associated with modesty and home life rather than showy public display. In 1864 white was the antithesis of the new chemically produced aniline dyes in colors such as electric blue and magenta, popular for modish outdoor and day wear…” In addition, although her hair is let down and loose, the model wears a wedding band, indicating her status as wife and not a “public woman.”
So now I have a ridiculous urge to reproduce this dress, or the one from the painting. I seriously doubt I ever will, but it’s fun to think of sewing in a ruffly cloud of white – even if it has the texture of a somewhat worn pot scrubber.
***A more in-depth discussion of both the painting and the dress, plus other examples from the era, can be found on Robyne’s blog Artistic Dress: Transgressive Fashion in the Victorian Era. All quotes are taken from Robyne’s post.