19th-Century American Dress: Behind the Scenes at The Costume Institute Conservation Laboratory

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has one of the most extensive collections of late Nineteenth Century garments. One of the more notable examples from their collection is one that should be familiar to anyone with a familiarity with 1880s fashions and is often cited as a perfect example of the mid to late 1880s silhouette:

Evening Dress, American, c. 1884 – 1886; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.63.23.3a, b)

Curious to know more about this dress? Well, now you can with this video that was produced by the Met:

Getting Ready For Helldorado…

We’ve had a busy year, so I may…or may not be able to finish my new blue gown for “Helldorado” weekend in Tombstone. I’ve been busy with corset orders, and making new samples, then you may have heard that there were fires in the LA area this week. Sigh…busy. Last year for Helldorado, we had one of the heaviest hail and lightning storms on record for the area! Is it Old West Climate Change…or is Tombstone truly a haunted place? It sure feels like it sometimes…See you on Allen Street, as we go East…to be in The West. 🙂

The 1890s Violet Dress Restoration Project, Part 1

In the course of building up our reference collection here at Lily Absinthe, one sometimes makes some amazing discoveries. Recently, we acquired a violet-colored day dress that we’ve dated to the late 1890s. Our attention was immediately drawn to the intricate decorative design on the bodice and we simply found it fascinating. Unfortunately, like many period dresses made of silk, this one has extensive silk shattering and we realized that it wouldn’t survive for many more years so we decided to replicate the dress by drafting a pattern from the original skirt and bodice. Interestingly enough though, the decorative design applique on the bodice was relatively well preserved and showed no evidence of shattering so we decided to incorporate it into the new dress. Below is a description of the process of bringing this dress back to life along with an accompanying hat…


One of my recent projects has been the restoration (perhaps “recreation” is a more proper term) of the a circa late 1890s violet day dress. What was most striking about the original was the style of the bodice and skirt and I was able to determine the provenance of this dress.  I got this bodice and skirt from an auction and upon receipt, I found a pinned note of provenance. It belonged to ‘Grace Jennings’ who apparently wore it to the wedding of a one Luisa Downing sometime in the late 1890s. This dress is not repairable, so I’m slowly patterning and re-making it. Thank you, Grace! Your dress has a loving home.

The label…Eliza M. Jermyn was a dressmaker in New York during the late 19th Century and on into the Early 20th Century.

So, to begin, let’s take a look at the original. I have also included an original hat that I also plan to restore for wear with the dress. First, here’s some views of the hat and the bodice:

The hat is pictured backwards just to show how perfectly the flowers harmonize! How sweet to think that two ladies’ Sunday Best will be re-used to make a new ensemble.
Yes, I’m a sentimental sap. And now for a closer view:

Soutache and Chenille Embroidery closeup. The lace false front will be lightened, it’s obvious it was white when it was made.

I’m inspired by all this handwork. The borders blend into the garment with a random series of french knots. For some reason, the embroidered part isn’t shattering. Maybe it’s because it’s backed with linen and a cotton batiste. The chenille ‘stamens’ are a mauve silk plush. So 3-D!

I still can’t believe that hat matches so well, I’ve had it for two years and never wear it. It needs a gentle steaming and cleaning.

Collar closes at center back.

The first place I started was with disassembling the bodice. Here’s a view of the interior before I got to work:

Time to remove the boning today, 36 stays in all. There are 31 bones present in the underbodice and bodice alone and another five in the collar. Each one is hand stitched into a silk tube, all seam allowances are finished with bias silk by hand. Saying a little prayer of appreciation to the designer’s details before I remake this bodice!

We’ll get back to the bodice later, in the meantime here’s what I did with the lace:

I removed all the lace from the front plastron so it can be cleaned. Look at her collar and how it dips in the center front…she had a short neck just like me but was still a slave to fashion!

After removing the lace from the bodice, the underwent an intense three-hour soak to lift out the rust without compromising the lace; basically, I took it from “toffee” to “oyster.” As for the skirt, unfortunately it wasn’t in as good condition as the bodice. Like many period garments, there was a lot of shattered silk:

Here’s the sad shattered skirt. I get one chance to draft a pattern from this and every time it’s moved, it throws old fabric dust particles in the air. Yes, I’m wearing a mask! Basically, the skirt was disintegrating as I measured it and began to draft the pattern.

This is an atypical hem for this era, it’s all self – fabric and completely hand-sewn. It’s also the only part of the skirt that has remained intact.

Turning to the hat, I proceeded to completely disassemble it…

I always cross my fingers and say a little prayer when I have to take apart an original chapeau to restore it. Going to give that lace a little soak before I sew it back on.

Sigh. See that tiny understiching? They hold a tiny wire and I get to undo each one individually. Too late to turn back.

I always cross my fingers and say a little prayer when I have to take apart an original chapeau to restore it. Going to give that lace a little soak before I sew it back on.

After a complete cleaning and basic overhaul, the lace is restored to oyster white, the shade it was in 1900. Turns out there were lace appliques that the milliner layered to create “pockets” that perfectly fit over the undulating wire curves. That’s the original label next to it.