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.

Getting Married In Old West Tombstone…

Some formal images taken in our Tombstone parlor, just before we left for the Courthouse. The bride is wearing a brocade gown in the mid 1870s style, with silk pleating and soft cotton netted ruffles with a corseted bodice in a ballgown style.

This gown has a detachable train, so she can wear it later for a Victorian Ball as a formal gown.

The bodice and skirt front had vintage lace applique and bobbinette (netted) ruffles all pinked with my antique tools and hand finished.

And the payoff… 🙂

We fell in love with Martin as well…now they’re the prettiest couple in the West. 🙂

Another Take On Wedding Gowns…

In contrast to today, the term “wedding gown” was far more flexible in the late 19th Century than it is today. When we think of a wedding gown, we invariably think of some sort of dress that’s in some shade of white or ivory that’s only worn once on the wedding day and then stored away forever, unless a descendant chooses to wear the dress for their wedding. However, in recent scholarship, it’s been noted that the concept of the “white wedding” with its one-use wedding gown is a fairly recent development, as much a product of merchandising as social convention.

As discussed in a previous post, during the late 19th Century, a wedding dress was typically a woman’s “best dress,” often enhanced by netting, lace, and flowers (especially orange blossoms). The dress was definitely meant to be worn long after the wedding and in fact, the idea of having a dress for that’s only worn once and then stored away forever was considered the height of wastefulness. With that said, here’s just one example of what a wedding dress could be, at least if we accept the Walsall Museums’ description:

Day Dress c. 1885

Day Dress, c. 1885; Walsall Museums (WASMG : 1976.0832)

Day Dress c. 1885

Side Profile

Unfortunately the photography is not the best…style-wise this is mid-1880s with a defined train/bustle and is constructed from a silver-gray silk satin for the overskirt and bodice combined with a silk brocade floral pattern for the underskirt, under bodice and sleeve cuffs. The bodice is constructed to create the effect of a jacket over a vest (although these were usually made as a single unit) and the red flowers on the silk brocade provide pops of red that add richness and variety to what would otherwise be a somewhat dull monochromatic silver-gray dress.

Day Dress c. 1885

Close-up of front bodice.

And here’s a nice close-up of the silk brocade fabric:

Day Dress c. 1885

Close-up of fashion fabric.

Here’s a couple of more pictures (although the color is a bit off):

Day Dress c. 1885

Three-Quarter rear view.

Day Dress c. 1885

The red flowers on the silk brocade panels definitely draws the eye up and fixes the viewer’s eyes (As should be the case with all bridal dresses!). Of course, as with much of fashion history, there’s rarely any absolutes and this was the case with using “regular” colors versus the more bridal colors of white and ivory during the 1880s. However, in the end, it’s important to realize that the dividing lines between “bridal” and non-bridal were not as rigid was we tend to view them today (although that’s changing). This was just a brief glimpse into the world of bridal dresses during the 1880s and that there are alternatives to the “traditional” when it comes to bridal dresses. 🙂

Wedding Time At Helldorado…

Helldorado is not only a reunion for fans of all things Tombstone, but it’s also a great place to get married and that’s where Lily Absinthe swings into action…one of recent projects is this wedding dress:

Wedding Dress Tombstone c 1881

And here’s a standing view:

Wedding Dress Tombstone c. 1881

This dress is one of our Tatiana style and while it’s hard to tell from the picture, there’s a light green underlayer on the overskirt, giving the dress a subtle shade of green.  It was, understandably, a stressful day for the bride but in the end, it was worth it:

Wedding Dress Tombstone c. 1881

And now for the ceremony…. 🙂

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Voila! We wish the happy couple all the happiness in the world! 🙂