This unique dress, made in the 1920s, was donated to the Museum in 1963 by Gladys McPherson. The beautiful bead-work posed a mystery to museum staff as it sparked debate whether the piece was hand made or machine stitched. The beaded panels are irregularly shaped, but the same lopsided shapes appeared throughout each panel. On the reverse, it is obvious that these panels were stitched to the longer black panels as well as the top and bottom half being hand-stitched together. It seemed that if the beading were done by hand, it would take immense time and effort for what was essentially a going out dress. Dresses like this one were popular in the 1920s as women gained more social liberties. It became socially acceptable for young women to go out at night and occupy the same spaces that were exclusively male dominated only a decade before. Therefore, dresses like this were intended for one night. By contrast, women would spend hours upon hours making their wedding dresses as it was a seminal event in their lives. It seemed all too much effort to hand bead this dress that was most likely not for a special occasion.
We were however, partly wrong. We assumed it was a combination of machine beaded panels, given the straight, uniform stitches on the under side, that were then stitched to the longer black panel, but the fabric is the same. This dress was in fact, hand beaded through the process of tambour beading.
Tambour beading allows one to pre-string a selection of beads and attach them to the fabric whereby a hook pokes through and attaches it to the fabric; a process that is marginally faster than hand stitching the beads. The name tambour refers to the tightness of the fabric, as if it were stretched across a tambour drum. The fabric is beaded from the back which allows one to draw on the designs which is far easier to follow. This accounts for the uniform stitches and the seemingly ordered chaos on the triangular beaded sections.
This technique was introduced in Europe around the 16th century from Asian influences. The finest examples of tambour beading at the time were imported to Western Europe from India, Persia and China. The technique is similar to other embroidery methods which made it a popular past time among women as it was easy to pick up. The technique remains popular to this day in haute couture houses that use it on high fashion.
After the beading was finished, this woman would then have cut out the shapes on the beaded panels by hand. A practice referred to as cut-work embroidery, that originated in renaissance Italy and remained prominent in Elizabethan England. Up close, you can see the threads have been cut away and are now frayed both from use and from age. One small triangle appears to have been missed as the sheer black fabric can be spotted on the left shoulder.
All things considered, the process by which this dress was made was extremely time consuming. Even with this faster process, making this dress would have taken up many of this young woman’s evening.