M14797.1-2 | Dress

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About 1860-1863, 19th century
Fibre: silk (net, taffeta, lace, ribbon); glass (simulated pearls); Sewn
Gift of Miss Mabel Molson
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Dress (85)
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The increasingly large dome-shaped skirt was characteristic of the early years of the decade, as were the wide low neckline, short sleeves, pointed waistline and back closure for the evening. The net of the bodice is mounted over taffeta, being pleated in the upper central area in both front and back. It is embellished with two appliquéd bands of taffeta in and inverted double-V configuration, the upper one being joined by an additional diagonal band from the shoulder area. All the bands are trimmed with blonde lace, the diagonal ones being additionally embellished with a narrow edging of box-pleated tulle. Appliquéd medallions of pearls and lace add to the surface richness. The back of the bodice has similar ornamentation. The sleeves are embellished with the narrow box-pleated tulle trim and more medallions; they are finished with a narrow silk ribbon. The neckline is edged with blonde lace, Valenciennes lace narrow ribbon. The closure is in the back. There are eleven whalebones of varying size, and small cushions in the arm holes in the interior, contributing to a smooth, albeit uncomfortable, fit. The corset probably worn underneath would have contributed to the stiff constraining construction, in stark contrast to the light airy effect created by the tulle. The stiffened net underskirt has two superimposed box-pleated flat frills of tarlatan near the hemline. The overskirt features an asymmetric zigzag pattern created by appliquéd broad silk taffeta bands edged with blonde lace and trimmed with additional medallions. There is a back closure. (The original tulle in both overskirt and underskirt has been replaced.). During the early 1860s, the crinoline-supported dome-like skirt was at its widest, and in fashion plates during 1860 and 1861 the skirt seems to project as much in front as in back. This look is exemplified in the Molson evening dress. For the next two years in fashion plates the skirt sometimes featured a slight movement towards the back. Dated photographs in the McCord's Notman Photographic Archives reveal that in 1864 the majority of skirts worn by sitters sweep towards the back in varying degrees. (Excerpt from: BEAUDOIN-ROSS, Jacqueline. Form and Fashion : Nineteenth-Century Montreal Dress, McCord Museum of Canadian History, 1992, p. 30.)

Keys to History

The ambiguity of what defines the character of middle-class women is played out in this lovely evening dress. The feminine ideals of innocence, gentility and fragility are echoed in the tiny waist, large frothy skirt and low-shouldered bodice. The wearer's physical delicacy would be underlined by a pale complexion and modulated movements. In fact, both the frail nature ascribed to Victorian woman and the ephemeral qualities found in this gown were highly crafted illusions.

Beneath its deceptively delicate appearance of tulle and glistening pearls is a surprisingly strong, rigid understructure. Beneath the persona of the "angel of the house" was a woman who had learned to make the running of a household, family and community appear effortless.

Jacqueline Beaudoin-Ross, Form and Fashion: Nineteenth-Century Montreal Dress (Montreal: McCord Museum of Canadian History, 1992).

  • What

    This evening dress is made of metres of silk tulle, net, tarlatan, silk taffeta and silk ribbons, trimmed with Valenciennes and blond lace and imitation pearls.

  • Where

    Dresses like this were made for specific functions. The wearer might carry flowers or wear jewellery, depending on her marital status.

  • When

    Montreal women were attuned to European fashions. The shape of the skirt and the size of the crinoline date this dress to the early 1860s.

  • Who

    A member of the Molson family wore this evening dress. In the film Gone With the Wind, set in the 1860s, Scarlett O'Hara was firmly laced into a corset.