The 18th century was flowing with new industry and creativity. Part of this unique creativity came from the fashion industry—dresses created for young American ladies reflected the styles of their Paris designers and British fashions. However, America became tired of getting their products through Paris and wanted to go right to the source for their fabrics. This source in the 18th century was India, and the materials commonly used were silk, muslin, and cotton. Muslin is the fabric used in the sheer dress that was studied. This dress was a typical style used in the 18th century by the middle class and the lower half of high-class society. The fabric imported from India was considered as expensive as silk. It costs an average of £50-400, which converts to $65-522. This may not seem like a lot of money for a handmade dress, but when you factor in the value of money back then, the dress would cost roughly £7,000-56,000today, which is about $9,000-73,000. This is due, in part, to the fact that this specific type of muslin fabric is harder to find now. The kind of muslin used to create the sheer dress is Dhaka Muslin. This fabric has a grueling 16-step process that the workers have to undergo to make it. Dhaka Muslin is hard to come by today because this process damages the workers and can sometimes lead to severe injuries. The closest fabric that you can easily find today would be a muslin fabric called Swiss Muslin. This fabric mimics Dhaka Muslin because it is lightweight and sheer like the Dhaka Muslin but less expensive. Most hand-made dresses using this fabric and other cheaper muslin fabrics cost around $200-500, which is more affordable.
This dress also has detail on it that is typical of candlewick embroidery done in this period. It was variably inexpensive to create this embroidery by hand. However, It was also very time-consuming. Candlewicking was the process of using the wicks typically used for candles to make embroidery on fabric. They used candle wicks because there was not as much cotton thread, and the little that was accessible was very expensive. Candlewicking typically used a knot called the Colonial Knot Stitch, the earlier version of the French Knot, which is more commonly used today. The detail on the sheer dress was most likely created by the child’s mom, who wore this dress. The mom of middle to high-class families would be the only one allowed to make the details on a dress or even sew and mend clothing.
Around the 1770s, children started to wear looser clothing styles. These looser styles came with new ideas about childhood innocence and separating children from the adult world. Before 1770, children were seen as adults as clothing and actions mirrored their parents. Children would wear restrictive garments and corsets. The new clothing styles allowed children to play, run, crawl, and explore. Infants, both boys, and girls, still wore gowns. At that early of an age-gender was not necessary. Boys began wearing pants with a jacket or dress on top for toddlers. This gave them a better sense of mobility. In contrast, girls continued to wear dresses, restricting their activity. The muslin dress restricted the young girl who wore the dress mobility due to the length.
Children’s clothing in the 19th century, like this piece, could have many components that accompanied it. With the creation of Drawers in the late 18th century, they quickly became an essential part of a respected woman. Children and women had a similar style of dress, using a variety of accessories. Many of these accessories are still common today but in different variations. Hats and handbags were popular; hats were embellished with feathers and ribbons and were worn often, like a baseball cap today. Handbags were called Reticules and resemble that of an evening bag today, a small bag with some designs. Items prominent in the 19th century were gloves, parasols, and tippets. A parasol is that of an umbrella today but was used more for decoration rather than functionality. Tippets were small capes made of the same material as the dress itself; shawls were also worn, usually made of Muslin, Silk, or Wool. The shoes of a young girl would have been low heels, so they could still easily walk, and the most common colors were brown, black, and red. Accessories were a staple piece for every outfit. We can now explore the beauty preparations for a young girl in the 19th century.
Beauty preparations for a young woman at this time were quite simple. Many of these young women would do similar hairstyles, called “barely curls” or “sugar curls.” Many of these girls kept their hair long, falling around their shoulders. In many cases, these children would wear their caps or turbans during the day to keep their curls intact, releasing them in the late afternoon or evening. Makeup was popular but not used by children. Makeup was becoming popular and accessible and was used almost exclusively by wealthy upper-class women.
Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10th, 1930. Dickinson was known for her American poetry. Dickinson was held at “The Homestead” and lived there for the first nine years of her life before moving to North Pleasant Street from ages nine to twenty-four. Emily Dickinson and her family were neighbors of the family whose dress we are presenting. Unfortunately, the house they lived next to is unknown; it can help tie some similarities between family prominence, duties, clothing, education levels, etc. Dickinson and their family were not known as specifically wealthy families, but more a prominent family in the community. This could be of a similar statute to the family that our dress came from. Dickinson’s father was a lawyer following his father’s path and a lawyer. She obtained private school education, learned to sing and play the piano, enjoyed baking and gardening, and attended church activities. Dickinson gives us an example of some of the possible traits, clothing, and education levels that could connect to the Tuckerman family.
Emily Dickinson’s duties reflected most young girls. Dickinson and other girls’ duties were baking, gardening, attending school, church activities, reading, learning to sing and play piano, writing letters, and talking on walks. Young girls went to dame schools to gain a needleworking education. Girls often learned needleworking from their mothers, grandmothers, and female relatives, but in small “dame schools” run by women. Teaching girls to sew was considered fundamental. Dame schools were created to educate children on adult labor. Adult labor was many hours of “plain sewing” and needlework for girls. Poor women could work as seamstresses, middle-class women could teach embroidery, and wealthy women could supervise the household clothing, linens, and furnishings. Girls who were expected to center in the home learned reading, writing, and some history and geography. If they were from a “common” family, school ended at the elementary level for them to provide help at home.
Because of the rare material of the dress, and the unique circumstances that were needed to make it, the Tuckermans, who owned the dress, must have been a wealthy family, also given their physical proximity to the family of Emily Dickinson. They were a very influential family during the period. However, exactly who wore the dress is hard to pin down as several young girls may have worn it. We know that the girl (or girls) would have to be about five years old in 1805, placing her birth year at about 1800.
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