Fashion in the 1860s: Mary Bain Bertram

1966.018A-B: Evening dress. Donated by the estate of Mary Bain Bertram.

This evening dress, donated to the museum by the Mary Bain Bertram estate, dates to the 1860s and most likely belonged to a member of Mary’s family. Made of silk, the skirt features a small handmade bustle, a slight train and a hoop that can be lifted for dancing. The fragility of the material makes it impossible to display in any physical exhibit. Much of the silk is torn, but the dress has several mysteries hidden within its seams, from the origin of the fabric, to the seemingly precise cuts and finally, the uneven placement of lace on the skirt.

This dress is an example of weighted silk; one of the most expensive varieties. The process of making silk requires the raw product to be degummed, whereby, the sticky substance, that allows it to be made into a cocoon, is removed. This process also reduced the weight of silk, thus reducing its monetary value. Unlike other textiles, silk was sold by weight rather than length. Manufacturers added materials to increase the weight and by extension, its retail value. Additives were originally organic materials, but by the end of the 18th century, metal salts were used to improve silk’s durability and lustre. Though praised for its tensile strength, and used in linings of dresses, this process made the silk significantly weaker over time as the salts bond to the fabric and ultimately cut away at the fibres, resulting in a shredded appearance.

The effects of weighted silk are noticeable in the shredded parts of the dress. These cuts are marked by their seemingly random appearance. In contrast, tears at seams, waistbands or closures are the product of use. These tears appear on the sleeve, in the middle of the skirt; areas of the dress that were not subjected to tension.

The off-centered construction of the lace on the skirt, where one section is noticeably larger than the other, is evidence of a major alteration.

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