Hey, everybody! It's been a really long time since I posted anything substantial here, but this fall I was lucky enough to curate my first exhibition at the Fenimore Art Museum: Elegant New York, a sampling of garments from our collection that were made by professional dressmakers or tailors in New York State, as well as a few from the Parisian haute couture world. Some of these garments have never been displayed before, and they certainly aren't on any online databases or other websites.
There's only so much room on a label for information about a dress, and you also have to balance the desire to inform with the need to write something the largest audience can digest. Since I am only supposed to share my own photos of collections items when they're on display, I'm going to take advantage of the opportunity to blog extensively about each piece!
The first garment you see on entering the exhibition is this dress:
Let's look closer!
This is a one-piece gown of a very lightweight cream-colored figured silk. It has a wide neckline edged with a beautiful blonde lace, and a pleated sevigné across the chest; the lace is cut to be very short across the front and back and long at the sides.
The elbow-length sleeves are pleated vertically. Each sleeve ends in two self-fabric ruffles.
The skirt is knife pleated toward the center front. It's unlined, which makes it very light - it really needs petticoats underneath to give it any shape.
The bodice is lined in either linen or a cotton of a similar weight and hand. (We installed this in mid-October, I can't remember!) Unlike later styles, there is only one dart on either side of the front, and it ends fairly high up on the bodice. There is also a center front seam, each side cut on the bias. All of these seams/darts are boned to make the bodice stay smooth in the front. The neckline is bound of covered with a self-fabric bias tape; the waistline is bound with the same thing, but also piped. The center front and side seams are piped, and the curved side back seams are ... either piped, or covered with a bias-tape trim, I can't remember.
The vertical pleating on the upper sleeves is something you see a lot in day dress in this period, a way of cutting the fabric in much the same way as the big sleeves of the earlier 1830s but achieving a slimmer look. The pleats themselves are held down with a chain stitch in a matching thread, also common. The double ruffle at the elbow was a fashionable transition from the full beret sleeves in early 1830s eveningwear to the plain and simple short sleeves of mid-1840s eveningwear.
The skirt is not very full. I dressed it over two gathered tulle petticoats to get as much of a bell shape as I could, since that had become the fashionable silhouette by 1837, but there simply isn't much of a circumference to fill out. A strangely old-fashioned aspect of such an up-to-date gown! Perhaps cost was a factor - at the time, the greatest expense of a gown was in the fabric, and you could save some money by using only two panels in a skirt rather than three.
This gown is actually something of a miracle! I wrote in this old post on Re-evaluating C. Frederick Worth:
Several months ago, someone posted a gown from the 1840s to Facebook with some discussion about the maker's stamp on the lining or waistband. I know this for a fact, but it's not to be found anywhere. At one point I was sure that a particular 1847 dress made by Oudot-Manoury for Sarah Polk was the one with a label ... but an email from the curator proved that this was not the case. So there are no pre-Worth gown labels to show.
This is the gown! I think what I was thinking of was this Tumblr post by a former curatorial fellow at the museum. The stamp reads "Miss Warnock, Fashionable Milliner and Dressmaker / 85 Cedar St. New York".
Jane Warnock had a few different premises in the 1830s, all in what's now the Financial District in lower Manhattan. (I actually went through a bunch of NYC business directories to work out the whole thing, but either I deleted those notes or I hid them somewhere they can't be found, so I can't go into more detail than that.) Thinking about the New York of that time gives me a kind of hiraeth, a nostalgia for a place I've never been that's fundamentally lost. Manhattan is terrible about its own history; the people and government there have always razed the old buildings to make way for the new, and at this point the area that was once the entire city is home to some of the newest and most modern-looking construction. All that's left is basically Fraunces Tavern and the small, angled streets that are so unlike anything else in the city.
Okay, enough poesy. Jane Warnock did not leave a mark on the history of fashion or New York society - the only places I can find any mention of her are web pages related to this dress and in those business directories. Yet she appears to be the first person who thought to put a maker's stamp inside a gown the same way they might a hat or shoe, perhaps because she was also a milliner. She may have done this many times, with garments that no longer survive or have just not been examined or published like this one, or perhaps this was a one-off experiment. We may never know.
The other interesting thing about the gown is that it was made for the wedding of Sarah Eliza Mygatt (1818-1890) to Dr. William Sands (1810-1889) in 1837. They both lived in Oxford, which is a rather small village in Chenango County, and I can't imagine how or why she went to New York to have her wedding gown made there. Was there some personal connection between the Mygatt or Sands and Warnock families? Was Jane actually quite well-known or was she chosen at random? Did Sarah send her measurements to Jane, or did she go to the city? Was this something that was normal for mercantile families in southern upstate New York, or did Sarah insist on having a very special wedding dress made in Manhattan?