Martha, Is That You?

George and Martha Washington in illustration for article in Delineator, February 1925, p. 19.

George and Martha Washington in an illustration for an article in Delineator, February 1925, p. 19.

I was making an inventory of a vintage costume collection for a friend, trying not to spend too much time on items with little resale value. I found a section of bustle dresses, or parts of them, that were clearly “the real thing.”

Vintage bustle dress, skirt missing.

Vintage bustle dress, skirt missing. Too small to fasten on the mannequin.

Vintage bustle dress , embroidered buttons. Details.

Vintage bustle dress, embroidered buttons. Details. The fabric is substantial.

Vintage brown taffeta bustle dress top; skirt missing.

Vintage brown taffeta bustle dress top; skirt missing. The long overdress fitting snugly at the hips, with gathers almost over the pelvis, can be seen in 1879-1880.

I never had time to photograph that one on a mannequin. The front with long, low gathering is very distinctive.

Back detail of late Victorian overdress. Skirt missing.

Back and fabric detail of late Victorian overdress. Brocade, satin, and velvet.

Front of long dress in autumn colors, satin underskirt.

Front of long dress in autumn colors, satin underskirt.

Late Victorian bustle dress, side view.

Late Victorian bustle dress, side view. Changeable taffeta.

A vintage bustle dress with back draperies pulled up, rather like a 19th century version of an 18th century polonaise.

A vintage bustle dress with back draperies pulled up, rather like a 19th century version of an 18th century polonaise. Skirt missing; a petticoat is visible.

All those crisp fabrics — and then I reached into the “bustle era” hanging storage and put my hand on this one:

A polaise -- sort of. Print cotton fabric, soft and droopy, rather too small in circumference....

Not a bustle, but a polonaise — sort of. It has elements of the robe a la francaise. Print cotton fabric, soft and droopy, rather too small in circumference…. for a moment, I thought it might be a “Dolly Varden dress.” (An 1870’s fad based on an 18th c. character in a Dickens novel.)

But, no, it’s a masquerade costume — meant to be 18th century — from a period that favored soft, droopy fabrics, no boning, and a skirt less full than the 1780’s.

 Martha Washington costume pattern, Butterick, 1924.

Martha Washington costume pattern 4258, Butterick, 1924.  (It is not this exact dress, but shows the effects of 1920’s style on the perception of 1780’s fashions.)

The front of the costume was never photographed on a mannequin, but you can see, as it hangs on a coat hanger (that’s how I found it) that the sheer ruffles on each side of the front are long enough to be worn crossed like the “Martha Washington” costume’s fichu:

Top of a masquerade or theatrical costume made in the the 20th century, but suggesting the Colonial period.

Top of a masquerade or theatrical costume made in the the 20th century, but suggesting the Colonial period. The sheer ruffles on the front are very long, probably meant to cross over the breast and waist. The machine stitching on the sleeve flounces is crude.

It has an interior bodice made of netting — a practice I have seen in dresses of the nineteen-teens.

The inner bodice of costume is made of netting. A theatrical costume would be lined with a strong fabric, like muslin, to take the strain off the seams -- and to allow for a tight fit over a period corset.

The inner bodice of costume is made of netting. A theatrical costume would normally be flat-lined with a strong fabric, like muslin, to take the strain off the seams — and to allow for a tight fit over a period corset.

All the sewing is a bit sloppy — and  why not, for a costume that might be worn only once?

These pieces of twill tape inside the skirt hold up the poufs of the polonaise.

These pieces of twill tape inside the skirt hold up the “Polonaise” poufs of the overskirt.

At the time when I found it, I wondered why my friend had collected something so clearly not “the real thing.”

But, many years afterward, I remembered it when I realized that pattern companies have been making “colonial lady” and “Marie Antoinette” patterns for costume parties, Halloween parties, centennials and local history pageants, 4th of July parties, and amateur theatricals for a very long time.

A Martha Washington costume from Butterick, February 1924. It is wrong, wrong, wrong, but dressing up in a masquerade costume like this was more glamorous and romantic than many other options.

A “Martha Washington” costume from Butterick, February 1924. As far as historic accuracy goes, it is pretty awful, but dressing up in a masquerade costume like this was more glamorous and romantic than many other options.

Click here for another Butterick  “Martha Washington”  pattern, circa 1941, No. 1695. The dress my friend collected does a better job of interpreting the back of an 18th century dress than either of the Butterick patterns.

Martha Washington Costume pattern 4258 and Continental suit costume pattern, Delineator, Feb. 1925, p. 37.

Martha Washington costume pattern 4258 and Continental suit costume pattern 4262, Delineator, Feb. 1925, p. 37.

 

 

 

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2 Comments

Filed under 1700s, 1870s to 1900s fashions, 1920s, Costumes for the 18th Century, Costumes for the 19th century, Dresses, Late Victorian fashions, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Uncategorized, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing, Vintage patterns

2 responses to “Martha, Is That You?

  1. This is great! And I’m glad to know there might be a sympathetic eye out there looking at the Glinda the good dress I whipped up for my two year old… Afraid it took crude to a whole new level.
    Nancy N

    • I am always in favor of do-it-yourself or improvised Halloween costumes. Creative recycling! “My Mom made it!” That ought to be said with pride — and “I made it myself” is pretty impressive, too. It’s been over 30 years since a student sent my mind reeling with the information that he had paid $75 for a Yoda mask. Back then my monthly mortgage payment was $149….

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