From ‘Happily Ever After’ Exhibit: an 1858 Wedding Dress

On June 3, 2016, “Happily Ever After” was installed by the History Museum’s curator Ashley Webb, who  scoured through the Roanoke museum’s collection to find wedding dresses, tuxes, veils, shoes, cake toppers and much more. She now offering  a “period look” at some of the pieces. The first is an antebellum wedding dress from 1858.

By ASHLEY WEBB, Curator, Historical Society of Western Virginia

1858 Wedding Dress with pagoda-like sleeves
1858 Wedding Dress with pagoda-like sleeves

It’s not often a small institution such as the History Museum has textiles from before the Civil War because the clothes were worn often (even wedding dresses were kept as part of a regular wardrobe) and the washings they got were harsh.  If an outfit did survive its owner, it sat in an attic or basement, quickly deteriorating from exposure to light, temperature, humidity and insects.  Sometimes, the period clothing was lost in a move or just forgotten.

Godey’s fashion for 1861: Wikipedia

That happened with this 1858 red and black silk wedding dress that donors Melissa Kloss Barnhart and Bridget GaleBarnhart Opazo found in Helen Gale Kloss’s attic with the note “grandmother’s wedding dress” attached to the box.  While it shows minor symptoms of wear and tear, along with silk shattering in some high stress areas, this dress is in great condition.  Some areas are more precarious than others, which is to be expected, as the construction of many older dresses used heavy material to maintain the desired silhouette of the time.

Melissa Adeline Spalding, daughter of Warren and Statira (Barr) Spalding, wore this dress at her marriage to Edmond Escourt Wilkins Gale, both residents of New York.  Edmond emigrated with his father to the United States in 1847; Melissa was born in New York state.  Most likely a day wedding, their ceremony took place in Melissa’s New York home.

Jet buttons add accents

While there are many styles of dresses throughout the 1850s and 1860s, they generally fall within two categories: day dresses and evening dresses.  Large hoop skirts and tight corsets reigned, hoping to accentuate the waist.  Evening dresses prior to and during the Civil War employed off-the-shoulder, scooped necklines with lots of frills and flounces.  The only frill on this dress is the lace at the cuffs of the sleeves.  Alternatively, day dresses covered the body, with conservative necklines and bright patterns.

Although Melissa’s dress is made of dyed silk, a new and relatively expensive commodity in 1858, Melissa’s family was probably not extremely wealthy.  While the dress is fancier, it shows several areas of mending, suggesting it was worn on several occasions after the wedding.  A large horizontal rent mars the front of the skirt, about eight inches below the waist.  It was stitched together inexpertly and clashes with the vertical stripes of the fabric. The buttons lining the front of the dress are made of a polished jet, which was often used in mourning jewelry throughout the second half of the 1800s.  These buttons add yet another element of beauty to the garment.

Sewn-in channel
Sewn-in channel

The pagoda-style sleeves extend outward at the elbow, allowing for a low sloping shoulder line and a fitted pagoda-like sleeves contour at the upper arm.  Both of these touches also attracted the eye to the wearer’s waist, accentuating the created space between the upper arm and triangle shape of the upper body.  Extra fabric, usually of silk, lace, or a light wool, was worn under the pagoda sleeve: the fuller the sleeve, the fuller the undersleeve. These undersleeves created the bell shape and allowed the sleeves to puff outward.

Cage crinoline

Another reason I believe this dress was worn more than once is because of the channel sewn into the lower half of the lining of the skirt itself.  Instead of wearing a cage crinoline  made of light fabric and several yards of steel boning, Melissa slid the boning straight into the channel attached to the dress, thereby making the wearer more comfortable during the hot summer months.  This would provide some shape to the skirt without the extra material!

vivien-leigh-3While this dress is not as stunning as Scarlett O’Hara’s similarly striped dress in “Gone with the Wind,” it certainly would stand out in a crowd!

Our friends at Chocolate Paper sponsored this dress, and it will be the History Museum’s entry into the 2016 Virginia Association of Museum’s Endangered Artifacts, so stayed tuned for voting information!

Thank you to our sponsors of ‘Happily Ever After’