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12 Nov 2020

The tale of a silk dress: part 3

Written by Vikki Duncan, Curator North
Two images of an old silk dress on a mannequin are displayed side by side. The photo on the left shows the front of the dress in full, with a white centre panel surrounded by pale blue silk with gold flowers. The photo on the right shows a close-up of the pleated section at the back of the dress.
Robe a l’anglaise, front and rear views, 1775–85, showing pleating ‘en fourreau’ at the back | Metropolitan Museum of Art
Our imagined diary, written by the dress itself, concludes with a look at the transformation from a bolt of silk to a beautiful gown.

In the last part of my tale, I wish to tell you a little about the life of the girl who wore me. It is her gift, through her thrice times great grandson, that has made it possible for me to tell you my story. Of course, my memory has faded a little, just as have parts of me, and I bear a few scars and stains that show you the life that I have lived – but isn’t that how we all carry ourselves through both admiration and adversity? Let me take you back to some of my happiest days ...

There had been an air of excitement at Brigton since the decision had been made to send me down to the great city of London to become a gown fit to be worn on a wedding day. In those days, a lady with a claim to gentility (and a father or husband with capacious pockets) would consider it fashionable to have her finer dresses made up in London by a mantua-maker or dressmaker. I would not travel alone since Janet would go with me for fittings.

The mantua-maker of the late 18th century took her name from the French word for ‘mantle’, which described a type of loose, sleeveless garment worn in the very early part of the century. By the time I was constructed, the mantua was only worn at formal court occasions, but the term remained to describe a woman who provided a design-and-construction service for gowns. Until the late 17th century, ladies’ gowns had been made by male tailors. My mantua-maker worked alongside a milliner (for hats), a haberdasher (for ribbons and other little trinkets) and a corsetiere (corset maker) in London.

We were destined to journey to Spitalfields, a colourful part of London that had seen a great deal of unrest some years earlier when Irish weavers had joined the Huguenot weavers in violent protest against the de-valuing of their silk by cheaper imports. However, by this time, it was peaceable (although still lively) and a thriving centre where luxury goods were produced for affluent consumers.

The dressmaker did not use a paper pattern or employ a mannequin upon which to drape me. Instead, the decisions regarding fit and form were made between her and Janet at the earliest stages of construction. You should understand that I was designed with a long centre-back panel piece, extending from the shoulder to the floor. This back piece was then formed into a series of sewn-down pleats on the dress bodice (the ‘en fourreau’ back) which were then released to form fullness into my skirts.

A black and white line illustration of an old-fashioned robe, focusing on the pleated section around the waistline. There is a caption beneath the diagram in French.
Construction diagram for a robe a l’anglaise corsage (upper part)

The mantua-maker used Janet’s own form to shape and mould me into a gown, and did pin it in such a way that I could be sewn together immediately. I was stitched with a quick running stitch, which was not only fast but was also easy to remove as fashions changed over the years to come. You may see the marks of my creation in the picture of me in your conservator’s studio.

A close-up detail of a section of a blue silk fabric, with a flower pattern. The bottom hem line is clearly seen.
View of the gown at The Conservation Studio, Edinburgh

Economy was important, as the cost of fabrics dwarfed the wages of the mantua-maker, and I have already told you of my great cost to Mr Orr. I would now be seen as an investment that could be gifted, re-made (as I would be, once or twice over the years) or sold to the thriving second-hand market. I do not care to be seen in such terms and I prefer to believe that Patrick Orr considered me as an investment in his beloved daughter’s future happiness.

When all was done and we returned to the healthier air of Scotland, Janet’s thoughts turned to the young man she was to marry. The portrait of Mr and Mrs William Hallett of the same period shows you how just such a young couple may appear to you now.

William Gordon of Milrig in Ayrshire was known to the family before he became betrothed to Janet. They may have met, perhaps, at one of the new assembly rooms that were being built in the thriving cities of the time. William owned land and a very pretty small mansion built in the early Gothic style just outside the village of Galston.

It is puzzling to me that I, made of delicate silk, have survived for centuries and yet this fine house with its crenellated tower, which became Janet’s home, did not stand into the last century ... aah, that is strange indeed.

Janet and William shared a happy marriage and had many children. You should know of their daughter, Margaret Grace, their last child. It was she who wrapped me so carefully and placed me in the dark chest after her mother’s death, so that I could survive to tell you my tale. In 1843 Margaret Grace married Robert Hudleston Williamson, from whom was descended the 3rd Lord Forres. It was he, when sifting through old family possessions, who came across the chest pushed to the back of the attic and who first lifted me free from my wrappings.

In the last part of my story, I’d like to share with you some of the extraordinary work being done to prepare me for my planned display at the House of Dun when it reopens. I currently reside in Edinburgh where I am undergoing some necessary conservation work that will allow me to emanate charm and sophistication once again. I will need to have the back of my neck secured as I am susceptible to further damage from the weight of my skirts; I will also need to have my worst creases, which I have accrued whilst being packed away, relaxed gently so that these are less noticeable. There is some personal staining under my arms which, sadly, cannot now be treated – but these show that I am not a reproduction, and offer evidence of my being whirled around the floor at the assembly rooms in Edinburgh after Janet was wedded to William.

You might also note that I no longer have my quilted petticoat, which should be displayed beneath the skirts. There is a lot of detailed work going into a worthy successor to it. Perhaps you will like this short play below (for this is what I would call it). It tells you of how both curator and conservator are looking at petticoats from my era. Their ambition is to create a new one for me but to employ similar methods used in the 18th century, which will include hand-dyeing and working a fine running stitch.

House of Dun petticoat


I’ve just come over to Tula’s workspace here. We’re talking about the petticoat that will go underneath the gowns, which you’ll have noticed are open in the front, for this specific reason.
And we’re discussing a quilted petticoat of a hand-dyed colour that will suit both gowns, for reasons of economy. And Tula was just showing me here, on a piece of man-made fabric, the type of stitching and design that could be on a quilted petticoat. And if you can see this, and I’m going close enough, you can see the stitches.
And Tula has shown me, in one of her books, how very ornate some petticoats were.

I have delighted in sharing with you some of my old stories; it has made me feel alive again, vibrant and beautiful as I once was. Perhaps you will visit me at the House of Dun when it reopens – I will be within a glass case and not at liberty to rustle along the fine carpet. This is because I am extremely fragile and will need protection from both light and moisture, but in so doing, I hope to be with you for many more years to come ...

The conservation of the dress has been made possible through the generous support of the Cedar Trust.

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