In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Historic Clothing Collection


Examples of 'ordinary' dresses from the 1850s within the MHS collection include a brown cotton calico dress with yellow floral sprigs, and another with pink roses on a brown ground. Because they were cared for and preserved, silk garments are more prevalent in the collection.

Silk was imported from Europe and expensive. For many women, a silk dress was an investment, a best dress for Sunday, or for special occasions. Looked after, often stored away as they moved past updating, this type of garment often survives to become part of a historic collection.

Up to, and about the mid- 19th century there was no broad silk industry in the United States. Limited Chinese imports of that time included black dyed textured tussah, sometimes called senshaw. In 1859, Miss Leslies Behaviour Book recommended senshaw for travel dresses. The collection’s 1850s dress of gold silk damask with an elongated leafy tree motif (quite distinct from imported European designs) is a reminder that, probably thanks to local sea captains, some Maine ladies received lengths of the Chinese silks made for the Western market.

Cameo button detail
Cameo button detail

Supported and shaped by stiff horsehair petticoats, this period's wide skirts became known as crinolines. The name derives from the French word crin meaning horsehair. Of the era, a gold/blue striped silk dress features pagoda sleeves (wide at the wrist), attached pelerine (small cape) trimmed with wide silk fringe, and a front closure with ten small circular metal shanked buttons, set with miniature cameos of either ceramic or glass. These buttons are not rare or of especially high quality, but are reflective of the era's fashion for cameo jewelry.

Other crinoline dresses also feature the fashionable pelerine look. The detached fringed pelerine on a purple shot silk ensemble matches the crinoline, with shoulder-to-waist gold fringe attached to the bodice, creating a pelerine effect. In another example, bands of sophisticated braid and fringe running from the shoulders of the bodice to center waist contrive a pelerine effect on a brown taffeta plaid dress. Although of the period, the dress includes a noticeably altered waist.

One of the collection’s finest and widest crinolines is a boat necked short sleeved teal and pink silk plaid with a set of detachable long sleeves, fringed neck trimming, flat skirt pleating at front and tight cartridge gathers at the back. The weight of the heavily lined, and very expansive skirt, is carried by an attached cotton bodice designed to fit over the shoulders under the teal and pink back-laced bodice.

The cage crinoline made of flexible steel appeared about 1856. As a result, women could walk unencumbered by the layers of heavy petticoats, with their legs free under the cage. Reducing the ever-increasing skirt circumferences down to fit bodice waists involved tight dense gathers, knife pleats, arrangements of double and multiple box pleats or some combination. Dresses from the MHS collection likely worn with cage crinolines include: a green and white warp print dress, with red and pink floral print, pagoda sleeves, and double layered skirt; a blue, black and white stripe with double pagoda sleeves and frizzé fringe braid trimming with an unusual stepped velvet motif; a gathered lavender and rose warp print with two bodices, one for day and one for evening; a bright blue, possibly ‘electric’ blue, taffeta with a combination of knife pleats, side and back double box pleats and a double pointed bodice; and a reddish-brown and green jacquard leafy patterned silk, tightly cartridge pleated with a bodice and decorative pattern of buttons very similar to an example illustrated in the June 1858 Peterson’s Magazine.

In the late 1850s early 1860s, crinolines reached their largest dimensions. A dress from this period made of a weightier ribbed gray and pale blue shot silk features cuffed pagoda sleeves and is notable, first for its very full skirt made with double box pleats on the front and sides, and triple box pleats at center back; and second, for bands of elaborate fringed and looped silk braid forming a pelerine effect on the bodice, which closes with matching large silk trimmed buttons. The braid and the buttons were probably products of the new braid and trimming branch of the nascent American silk industry. In complete contrast, a simple plain white unadorned organdy summer dress with drop shoulders, bishop sleeves and closely cartridge pleated crinoline skirt would not be out of place among the cloud of white dresses in Claude Monet’s 1866-67 painting titled Women in the Garden.

Another white organdie, a ball dress, with short frill sleeves, boat neck, and a wide green waist sash, features a flat front skirt that spreads expansively to the rear. Fashion’s skirt styling direction is made clear in the June 1867, Peterson’s Magazine which marks the beginning of the bustle era with descriptions of evening dresses flat and plain in the front with skirts gathered in a bunch at the back.