A Curious Thing of Beauty

I recently encountered this dress and it’s another one of things that’s made my mind pause. I love it when that happens, when something so arrests my attention that my brain logs in with question after question, because that’s when I start learning.

This is from The Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, and dated to “about 1800.” There is scanty information, however it comes with a provenance, handed down through family. And it’s like nothing I’ve seen before.

Fairly wide cuffs on the sleeves. Cuffs?! Did some ancestor “update” the sleeves for wear at a later time? On the other hand, those sleeves look wide enough to have been meant for cuffs all along. And look at the back of the bodice – I can see the classic elements of a period armscye, but arranged slightly differently. (The sleeve inset looks quite comfortable, actually.) And is that a matching chemisette under the bodice, as opposed to a double layer? That would make sense, as having a convertible neckline would render the dress usable for both day and evening wear.

Whatever’s going on, I like it. And I’d wear it, as well. Although I think I’d stick to a traditional sleeve. See what you think.

French, about 1800. Cotton mull* with silver embroidery. Accession number 47.1280a-b.



 *I wasn’t sure what cotton mull is/was so I went to textileglossary.com: It is a super fine quality of cotton cloth woven as plain weave. The cloth is bleached and finished to give a soft feel.

Another source (Fabrics, by Ann Landry, second edition, 1985) mentions that although it was once used as primary dress goods it “is now almost entirely confined to use as an underlining fabric, and for experimenting in draping styles, e.g., toiles.”

7 thoughts on “A Curious Thing of Beauty

  1. the sleeves do give it a sort of hippy look, don’t they? I’m sure my mum had something similar from a shop on saddler street in durham, called mugwump, when I was a kid. she’s probably still got it, I don’t think she’s ever thrown anything out, I remember in my twenties begging to borrow a black cheongsam that that was at least four sizes too small for her, but no – nor would she lend the local museum any of her biba for their exhibition.

    • Thanks for the info and the link! How have I managed to go all this time and not notice cuffs before? I shall be more vigilant, and now that I’m aware of them I’ll probably see them everywhere. Isn’t that how it works? 😉

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