The Amateur Fashion Sleuth: All the News That’s Fit to Wear – 1866 Fancy Dress

It’s not strikingly beautiful, the colors aren’t unusual or even necessarily arresting and the style isn’t much to write home about. But I’ve never seen anything like it before – have you?

I thought of the Victorian’s love of allegory and messages in fancy dress, but surely dressing as “The News” would have been entirely too mundane. Neither grand nor worthy enough for this kind of expense. Why is the bodice so plain while the skirt is definitely not? And what’s going on with the headdress?

I encountered the image on Pinterest. The description was, of course, brief. But the gown is so incredibly unusual I had to know more. Surely there must be a story behind this tour-de-force creation. As it turns out, when I looked for more information about this gown I discovered the pin’s original information is a bit misleading.

This is the information from the Pin:

1866, Mrs. Dobbs, Melbourne. Cream-colored silk satin, lined in cotton, and has a linen pocket. White satin panels of skirt printed with pages from 13 Melbourne newspapers, including the Age, Argus, Herald, Australasian, Leader Illustrated Australian News and Punch. Slips inserted between panels show titles of all the newspapers. Metal trim or ribbons were used to cover the skirt seams. Ribbon trim cotton warp and gold alloy wire weft.

I couldn’t help thinking this must have caused quite a stir in 1866. It would not have been worn by “just anyone.” Metallic ribbon with gold alloy weft? That must have cost a fortune. And the custom-printed satin would have been pricey as well. The entire gown must have glowed in the candlelight. Surely there had to be more. And there was.

Here’s the real story, from the Australian Dress Register:

fancy dress

This dress belonged to Mrs Matilda Butters, second wife of colourful Melbourne politician and businessman James Stewart Butters. It was first worn at the mayor’s fancy dress ball in September 1866, held to celebrate the arrival of the new governor of Victoria, Sir J Manners-Sutton.

The dress was constructed from panels of silk printed with the front pages of Melbourne newspapers. The panels were sewn together to form a bodice, sash and full-length crinoline skirt with train. The skirt, which measured more than five metres around the bottom edge, was made up of 14 panels, each of which were separated and edged with gold braid. The front panels showed the new design for the Town Hall, a portrait of the just-appointed Victorian governor Sir H Manners-Sutton, and Mr Punch as portrayed on the front page of Melbourne Punch. 

To complete her costume, Mrs Butters wore a coronet headdress proclaiming, ‘Liberty of the press’ and carried a staff with a functioning miniature printing press. Throughout the night she used this press to print lines from Lord Byron’s poem ‘Lara’ onto satin ribbons. [That is just the kind of Victorian allegory and excess that makes my day.] The dress was in fact such a hit Mrs Butters wore it on a number of subsequent occasions.

The dress was made by Mrs William Dobbs of Gardiners Creek Road, South Yarra, about whom little else is known. The papers featured on the dress were The Age, Argus, Weekly Age, Leader, Australasian, Herald, Bell’s Life, Spectator, Journal of Commerce,Government Gazette, Dicker’s Mining Record, Illustrated Australian News, and Punch.

The majority of the panels for the skirt and train were printed from the actual plates and type of the newspapers by Blundell & Ford, a well-known Melbourne printing firm. The exceptions were the Argus and Government Gazette, who printed their own panels.

Widely regarded as one of the great 19th-century printed works in Australia, the silk panels of printed newspaper are still readable – testament to the skill of the printers.

Today all that’s left of the costume is the skirt and part of the sash. Thanks to funding from the Violet Chalmers Bequest, the dress has undergone extensive conservation treatment in 2006.

The bows on the shoulders seemed a bit much to me and out of scale with the rest of the dress and I wondered if some museum curator had gone just a bit overboard. As it turns out, the bodice currently displayed with the skirt is a reconstruction made from newspaper images of the time. My bad.

The provenance is pretty unbeatable, too:

Dress owned and worn by Mrs Matilda Butters at the Mayor’s Fancy Dress Ball on 20 September 1866, again 14 days later at the Return Fancy Dress Ball 4 October 1866 and 23 December 1867.

Illustrated in a wood engraving by Samuel Calvert in: The Illustrated Melbourne Post 27 October 1866 page 357. The dress is described in The Age 21 September 1866 page 6, column 2. A description also appears the following year in the Argus 24 December 1867 page 5 when Mrs Butters wore the dress again at the Mayor’s Fancy Dress Ball.

So there you have it. Lessons learned: 1) take what you read on Pinterest with a grain – or bucket – of salt, 2) if what you’re seeing doesn’t make sense there’s probably a reason, and 3) there’s often more to the story than meets the eye. Get curious and dig deeper – that’s where the real treasures lie.