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1 Dec 2021

A grand silk dress at House of Dun


VIKKI: We've got Lauren with the petticoat on the mannequin, and if I come around you'll see how the mannequin has a pole, a chrome pole beneath it, and the weighted underskirt with the hoops on it Lauren's tying to the mannequin.

We'll have to play about a little bit with the [...] with the arrangement of the creases at the side, and all the folds, to give the impression we want – the most fullness at the back which is the correct shape for a dress of this period.

We've just attached the skirt at the back to cover the workings, as it were, that you just saw behind and now you can see it's given the mannequin the right shape with all the gathers at the back, which we're going to have to work into the actual dress when it sits on.

We've just put the quilted satin petticoat on now to the mannequin, and I'm rather thrilled about this because this is the result of all the research I did with Tula, into particular designs used on the front of the satin petticoat. This is a new piece of fabric but we actually talked about this on a video that I made last year, which is on YouTube, talking about the diamond shape pattern above, and then we have extracted the designs at the bottom from some of the designs on the other gown – the blue dress.

The petticoat itself is just a half petticoat, for reasons of economy so Lauren can show you it fits pins at the side with a lovely little waistband, and it's open at the back. So Lauren's starting to remove some of the tissue 'sausages' that have been very carefully rolled and placed within the folds of the gown, to help keep the shape.

LAUREN: It's to help stop creasing as well. Acid-free paper is rolled and placed in the dress, and we do that on the bodice using what we call acid-free puffs, with a bit more of a structure, and that's to support the fibres of the gown while it's resting and being stored so as to avoid creasing of the fabric and stop wear and deterioration from gravity.

VIKKI: So we're just opening up the last of the outer wrappings, where the bodice has been padded out, and I'd really like to get in close here because I'd love you to see, as Lauren's removing them, a couple of things here.

First of all, the tie-in tapes. These are later editions but they are very typical of what you'd find in a gown of this era. Obviously there were no zips, no buttons, so they had to have a method of being able to tie in their undergarments, and this is it. And more to the point I'd love you to see – first of all, look at this beautiful 'en fourreau' pleating, which gives the bodice the shape, bringing it down to the tiny waist.

You'll also see, if you can, very basic stitching which belies the beauty of the gown on the outside. This is really the gubbins of the gown, and also you'll see obviously some staining, which is totally normal for a gown of this age.

So you can see Lauren's now lifting the gown, cradling it like a baby. Got to take a lot of care with it. And I'll just pan back, because she's basically going to need my assistance in a moment. We're just going to drape it around like a cloak before we start the delicate touch of fitting it to the shape. OK so here we are with the dress fully mounted. Lauren has done a really painstaking job of very delicately hand-stitching the bodice together, from the top, where it's secured to the mannequin, all the way down to the bottom. She's just doing the final stitching now.

We can see here it is finished. I'm just showing you from the side because I've just walked around the dress doing every single pleat. Looking at the bodice with the frill detail on – beautiful as it is, we're not seeing it as it would have looked because this ruffle, which is all around the neckline, square (as it would be) and falls down the front of the open gown, showing the petticoat, it would have stood proud, rather like petals of a flower – not compressed as they are now. This dress is 240 years old. So we can't expect it to look pristine but our conservator has done an amazing job. The reason we still have the dress in the shape it's in is because it's for the most part lain in the dark, flat.

Look at this magnificent shape: the detailing that gives it the fullness at the back is this wonderful system of pleating, 'en fourreau' pleating in a deep V design coming from the shoulders down to its tiniest point at the waist and then just at the hips flaring out into these amazing waterfall pleats which gives the dress its correct shape.
She looks as if she's just walked into the room.

There she goes, Lauren's lifted her base. Yes! That's it, perfect, she's at an angle, so when people come in through the door they can see the shape.

Yes – perfect. Beautiful.

Thanks Lauren.

Curator Vikki Duncan and Conservator Lauren Jackson took some footage of the dress being unboxed, following conservation work, ready to be displayed at House of Dun. Join them for a look at the care taken to display the dress.